Saturday, June 30, 2018

Still Life with Robin: Why I'm on the March Today
by Peggy Robin

I’m off to the Families Belong Together March, and I hope many of my neighbors will be there too. The event starts at 11 AM at Lafayette Square. You can find out the details here:

If you’ve been reading this column for any length of time, you know I usually stick to neighborhood and DC-related topics. But this isn’t really a departure from that theme. The policy to mistreat, harass, discourage and deport immigrants -- especially refugees and asylum seekers – affects so many right here in our neighborhood. It’s a local issue, as much as it’s a national shame. You may not know who around you is affected but I assure you, they are here. It could be the server in your favorite coffee shop, or the dishwasher you don’t see at the back of the house; it could be the person who’s working in the garden next door; or it could be your next door neighbor. Immigrants are in all walks of American life. They have been coming to America, fleeing persecution, since the day the Mayflower landed on Plymouth Rock. But now some of those who have come seeking shelter have had their families torn apart, their children taken from their arms. It’s unconscionable; it’s heartbreaking.

Now I don’t happen to know anyone who’s come seeking a new life and is suffering this trauma now. I have to go back a generation to find my own family connection to this kind of desperation. When my mother was a high school student in the late 30’s, living in the Bronx, her parents took in two female cousins, sisters, single women in their forties, who managed to escape from Eastern Europe before the Nazis marched in. But they could not get permission to come to the US; they got as far as Canada – where they knew no one, spoke neither English nor French, and had no prospects to work. So my mother’s father did what he was sure was the right thing: he smuggled them into the US, where he knew he could provide for them until they were able to support themselves.

He drove up to Vermont and then across the border into Canada, picked them up, hid them under a blanket in the back of the car (in another relative’s telling, they’re in the trunk) and drove them to safety to his house off the Grand Concourse. He put them up in his house for years. He found them work doing fancy embroidered monograms for a department store. For the first years they were in the Bronx, they maintained a fictional residence in Canada. Then at some point enough time had passed that they were eligible to become Canadian citizens, and my grandfather smuggled them BACK over the border to Canada, where they stayed just long enough to take the Canadian citizenship test. Once they had received their Canadian citizenship, they were able to cross back legally into the US, without a quota, without fear. So they became legal immigrants to the US from Canada, and resumed living in New York, where they’d been safe, but illegal, for all those years before.

As for their families back in Poland? We don’t think any of them survived. The story we heard is that when the Nazis came to their town, they locked all the Jews in the synagogue and set it on fire, killing everyone, man, woman, and child.

I wonder if in similar circumstances I would do something as bold as my grandfather to help people fleeing for their lives. Marching this day takes so little effort, but I am happy to do so.

Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.


  1. Thanks very much, Peggy for expressing so well what many of us feel. Especially for reminding us that even if we are not directly affected, friends and neighbors all around us are. And that many who live here happily now have similar painful family histories. Let’s keep marching !

  2. I humbly extend my gratitude.

  3. Thank you Peggy for this ... you are right, all of us have a family immigration story to tell. On my father’s side they were French Huguenots escaping religious persecution and oddly enough, I think they may have wanted to go to Canada, but were not Catholic so ended up in New Jersey! On my mother’s side, she was Belgian and escaped to Portugal in the 30’s. Imagine if they all had run into what is happening today ….. it is absolutely heartbreaking.

  4. Well said - thank you Peggy

  5. Wish I'd been able to go to the march. My hip wouldn't let me. It was wonderful to see such a good turnout.

  6. Just want to add my thanks for that message, Peggy, and commitment and solidarity with all of you. Marcia and Evelyn you took the words right out of my mouth, and may I add we’re fortunate to live in a city where our marches and our expressions of dissent are allowed to go forward, are made possible and even welcomed by a city administration, a police force and a transportation system that see these things happen smoothly. Now if we only had senators and voting reps in Congress!