Andersen: Blessed immigrants, hapless refugees

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

There’s a difference between refugees and immigrants. Refugees are expelled from their native lands by circumstances beyond their control. Immigrants make a choice to relocate to what they think is a better place.

Refugees are driven by survival. Immigrants are motivated by self-improvement. Refugees have no choice. They are cast off into an unkind world. Immigrants can return home if their choice doesn’t work out.

I know about immigrants because all four of my grandparents emigrated from Denmark to the U.S. a little over a century ago. As immigrants, they chose to leave the fatherland for future opportunities in America.

My maternal grandfather, Axel Andersen, was an immigrant success story. He was a master carpenter, trained in Denmark, when he emigrated at the turn of the century with his farmer parents and siblings. They settled in rural Minnesota to grow corn, wheat and cows.

Young and headstrong, Axel soon moved to Chicago. He worked construction, scraped together a little money, bought a lot on the North Side and built a bungalow. He sold the house, bought two lots, built two more bungalows and on he went. He financed it all himself.

As a young immigrant, Axel was a Eugene Debs socialist who believed in distributing the wealth to working men like him. After he had achieved financial success, he became a hardened capitalist, attributing his wealth to his own industry.

Axel retired at age 50. From then on he played the stock market with acumen, boasting of making money by doing nothing. When he visited his two brothers at their farms in Minnesota, he often drove a new car and wore fine clothes.

He lorded it over his siblings that his success was based on his merits, which it largely was, because of the risks he took. He supported his lesser achieving younger brother when there was need.

Axel co-founded Dania Hall on the southwest side of Chicago, a nationalistic club that celebrated everything Danish. When he visited Denmark, Axel returned as the conquering hero. Only Danish could be spoken at Dania because Axel and his friends remained proud Danish chauvinists.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen offers a different perspective in “The Refugees,” a collection of short stories that depicts Vietnamese refugees who landed in the U.S. after the fall of Saigon in 1975, only to feel like exiles.

Nguyen depicts the trauma many Vietnamese refugees suffered from their forced evacuation from their homeland, their often embittering reception in the U.S. and their disenfranchisement from both cultures.

For Nguyen, anger remains an underlying issue.

“Asian Americans have been perceived as not being angry, even though that’s not true,” he wrote, describing the source of his anger. “I want the same privileges as a white man.”

Jolted out of place, there was no choice for Vietnamese refugees, just as there is no choice for Syrian refugees fleeing war, or Sudanese refugees fleeing famine and war. These displaced persons are driven to desperation by privation, not by the choice of free people exploring the world for better options.

“Doors across Europe are slamming shut,” reported Time recently about Syrian refugees, “yet the number of Syrians fleeing their country for refuge abroad continues to climb, reaching a new milestone in March of 5 million.”

Syrian refugees are fleeing poison gas attacks launched by their own government. They are fleeing death in search of life. They seek a safe place where they can raise their families and earn a living. Their exodus is not about self-improvement; it’s about survival of self, family and culture.

“I want to live,” one Syrian is quoted as saying in Time. “I want to provide money to my children and educate them.”

For many refugees, stories are all they have.

“In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories,” reflected one of Nguyen’s characters.

My grandfather’s stories were positive because he was a white, male European immigrant who realized success in a country that rewarded men like him who exhibited ambition, skill and instinct. Had he been of a different color and ethnicity, his story would have been far different — and mine, too.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at