“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” So go the familiar lines of “The New Colossus,” a parochial sonnet that found its way inside the Statue of Liberty, redefining her mission. They were written by Emma Lazarus, a Sephardic Jew of Portuguese descent, who was a pen-pal of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s and a poetic proponent of the Zionist movement before it caught fire.
There are the words and then there is the context. The words live forever the way they were written, while the context is rewritten over and over on the unmarking surface of memory.
I lived in New York City for a couple of years just out of college. I don’t know whether it was the waiting and catering gigs, the soccer game in the Sheep’s Meadow, or the simple fact of the city, but I collected compatriots from all over the world whom my prep school friends from down I-95 somewhat pejoratively called “the sentimental foreigners.”
As a map-gazing child, I was more fascinated by the parti-color, puzzle-pieced shapes of West Africa or Central Asia than any lesson. Like x’s on a treasure map, each outline screamed, “Here be stories.” The sentimental foreigners had all come to the U.S. for the hustle and opportunity our country affords, and they all missed home. Towards the end of the night, the stories poured out in honey-colored nostalgia, which is why my erudite friends teased me… and also why I listened so closely.
This week’s cover story on Charlottesville’s refugee community barely scratches the surface of its collective experience. It’s a partial story, just like the ones I used to listen to with rapt attention. In a funny way, it was those stories that sent me into the heart of America, searching for its soul. Our country is cursed in this way: Our culture, our dream, our identity is so fractured that it relies on words to define it. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So we live with a truth Ken Kesey wrote down before his inkwell dried up: “I have to offer more than I can deliver, To be able to deliver what I do.”