Refugees and immigrants

During my run this morning, I listened to Reveal – The Smuggler.  It was a fascinating story about a french reporter, Raphael Krafft, who gave assistance to two Sudanese refugees and helped them cross into France.  The story is harrowing, and at times heartbreaking, and, as often happens to me when I’m hearing stories of people displaced from their place of origin, I end of thinking of my father.

No, he was certainly no refugee.  Although by marrying my American mother, he alienated himself, at least for a few years, from his family – who disowned him for his recklessness.  They reclaimed him when we all traveled back to Sri Lanka, possibly in part because of the sweet daughter (me!) that he brought back with him.

A song from my childhood tends to percolate up into my thoughts whenever I think about my displaced father, and his struggles to figure out who he was and how he fit into American society.  He came here as a graduate student in Aeronautical Engineering, but he cut classes to go fly small planes in Pennsylvania, and to teach presumably wealthy clients how to pilot, and he never did get his degree.  So, I ended up being the daughter of the only Sri Lankan man in America that I ever met who didn’t become wealthy himself, and did not achieve the American dream of a big home, and a suburban lifestyle.  Instead, he hovered around the edges of society, and hung out with a motley assemblage of laborers, barflies, and creative folks.

The song is Bob Dylan’s I Pity the Poor Immigrant:

I pity the poor immigrant
Who wishes he would’ve stayed home
Who uses all his power to do evil
But in the end is always left so alone
That man whom with his fingers cheats
And who lies with every breath
Who passionately hates his life
And likewise, fears his death
I pity the poor immigrant
Whose strength is spent in vain
Whose heaven is like ironsides
Whose tears are like rain
Who eats but is not satisfied
Who hears but does not see
Who falls in love with wealth itself
And turns his back on me
I pity the poor immigrant
Who tramples through the mud
Who fills his mouth with laughing
And who builds his town with blood
Whose visions in the final end
Must shatter like the glass
I pity the poor immigrant
When his gladness comes to pass
The version I learned was Joan Baez’s:
The lyrics are a little harsher than my dad’s experience.  He generally was well-loved by all with whom he associated (excepting, unfortunately, my mother).  But, the overall sense of being in a place where you don’t belong resonates for me.
At the end of the Reveal piece, the reporter checks back in with the two immigrants, and they have notably different paths and experience.  Ibrahim sinks into depression, and a sense of futility and frustration, and Ahmad seems to have a more optimistic outlook.
For my dad, in the end, his American experiment ended, and he returned to Sri Lanka.  The letters he sent me during those last two years of his life while there indicated that he wasn’t happy there, either.  Life wasn’t exciting – Sri Lanka was too small.
But he was hopeful of better times ahead…