In the summer of 2014 I visited San Marino, a small country on a mountain that is landlocked by Italy. “The Most Serene Republic of San Marino” as it is officially named. It has been mostly serene throughout history, apart from one specific day in June of 1944.
My grandmother, Nonna Maria, was eleven years old at the time sitting with her grandfather in her home at the base of the mountain. The Allies chose that moment to drop a bomb on San Marino, which Nonna later recalled damaged the exterior of her home. Thirty-five were killed, undoubtedly some people that she knew, and many survivors took refuge in nearby train tunnels.
I walked through the same train tunnels seventy years later, almost to the day. Families lived in the tunnels for weeks after the bombing as they rebuilt their homes and their lives. Each family was assigned boundaries in white paint, still clear today. Unbeknownst to me, I walked past the boundaries in which Nonna had spent a crucial, fearful point of her life.
I am not reducing the struggle of current Syrian refugees to my grandmother’s situation. They are both horrible events in their own right. I have not lived through their situations, and that I am grateful for. However, their needs are not so different: safety, stability, and bounty. All four of my grandparents immigrated from San Marino to the United States for a more stable life. Through marriage, children, and friendships they have built up loving familial empires that have proved to be strong through sickness and health, keeping alive reverence for the old country.
The virtue of perseverance has been handed down to me just as my genetics. I come from builders, painters, and carpenters who worked tirelessly to feed their children. They learned the monstrosity of the English while fighting off the monstrosity of prejudice. I am so grateful for every sacrifice of another that has brought me to the space I am occupying as I write, and nobody should forget that fact.
Every family in this country was born out of the sacrifices of immigrants, though some people may be farther removed than others. It is not an easy thing to leave the old country, to give up your familiarity and connections, especially when it isn’t your choice. The current situation of refugees may not be all that different than the reasons your ancestors crossed an ocean to build new lives here.
I am a product of sacrifice by frightened men and women who came here for a safer, more plentiful life.
I am Nonno Aldo, struggling to speak English with his grandchildren, who were never subject to the trials of assimilation.
I am thirty-year-old Nonna Mary, sewing five identical dresses similar to the ones she owned as a child.
I am hardworking Nonno Al, pouring concrete foundations to feed his five daughters.
I am eleven-year-old Nonna Maria, huddling in the train tunnel and scared, dreaming of a comfortable home she would one day come to find in America.