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Viewpoint: Strangers in a strange land

By Kim Solomon, River Falls

My grandfather was born in the hills of Kentucky and was a coal miner. He was named John Henry after, as singer Pete Seeger said, "a steel drivin' man." It took some years but grandad finally laid down his hammer and died of black lung disease from breathing in coal dust. My dad was named William and he swung a hammer too, breaking-up the sand molds used to shape molten steel into tractors in an Illinois foundry. He died of lung cancer, coughing up black foundry dust. They were tough men who did whatever it took to care of their families. And, for whatever reason, they both had slanted blues eyes and skin that was darker than most of their neighbors. And so do I.

My today is a link connecting my family's past to its future. I used to be a white collar worker but now I'm retired and my collar is the blue of my dad and grandad and it doesn't embarrass me. I don't swing a hammer but I do work in a factory and I'm proud of the job I do. I'm a law-abiding citizen and a local home owner.

I'm also "made in America." I believe in God, family, and freedom and won't ever apologize for that. And I'm not assimilated. I go to a synagogue, not a church, and feel relieved when the 10th person enters the room so that any mourners present can say a prayer for those who've died. I also like it when someone who's blue collar or from somewhere I've lived moves into my neighborhood. I speak and read English and also crappy Hebrew and have been told by friends that both my English and Hebrew may now and then be troubled by a Louisiana accent.

It doesn't matter whether a person's culture is Middle Eastern or that they speak with a southern accent or maybe even that their "native tongue" might have the f-bomb as the most common word. We all feel more comfortable with the familiar than with the new and strange. That's just the nature of people; just as it's our nature to be afraid of people unlike ourselves. This fear is what led America's Irish immigrants of the 1800's to live packed together in the Irish ghettos of New York City and Boston ... and to some businesses looking for help back then to post signs saying "No Irish Need Apply." It's the same fear of the unfamiliar that's still present today for some of our citizens and immigrants.

It's also the fear that led to the forced transportation of more than 60,000 American-born citizens of Japanese ancestry to concentration camps run by our own government during WWII. Oddly enough, it was the same president who said "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who ordered their detention. I'm not sure that the people imprisoned in those camps would agree with his statement.

I'm building on my dad and grandad's legacy and saying to folks who think that today's legal immigrants need to leave and go home, that they are home. They may look different than some of us, speak a different language and struggle with English (sorry but it's a hard language to learn. Latin words stuffed into a Germanic framework) and have very different views of the world but their fundamentals are the same as those of the immigrants that our own families are from. They want to be safe, to worship as they need to, and most importantly to have a better future for their kids. And if they can bring a little bit of the world familiar to them with them for comfort, that's understandable.

My name isn't John Henry or William. I don't swing a hammer, but I know what it is it to be both a minority and "made in America." The legacy of our families lives on every day for so many of us who wake up and go to work every day to build things with our hands and then return to our homes to raise the next generation of Americans, even if that generation might have slanted eyes or skin of a different shade or speak a different language.

As the holy books of a couple of cultures say, let us treat strangers well "for we were once strangers in a strange land."