This is a true – and sad – story. I do not know the details, but I have become acquainted with the outline. It seems personal to me.
Violence, war, and famine were not happening over there. They were happening here, all around the family and the village. Dangerous men were strongarming them for protection money – money they could not afford to give, money that was needed to buy food.
There was nothing they could do. They scraped what little money they had together and paid them off. By the time the army arrived, it was too late; their tormentors were already gone. Besides that, the soldiers were as bad as the men they were fighting.
After two dreadful growing seasons – most of the people in the village were farmers – poverty was pervasive throughout the region. The farmers had no crops to sell. The village artisans had no one to buy their merchandise. Life in the village had always been difficult, always only one step ahead of indigence; but during the last three years starvation had been nipping their heels.
But word had been spreading through the village and around the region that America was the land of promise, the land of plenty. In America, there is law and order. Its people live in peace. Hard work brings prosperity there, unlike here, where it invites extortion.
People all over the village, all over the region, were talking about America. They even knew the names of the particular places where they wanted to live. Carolina sounded like heaven. Pennsylvania – lots of immigrants go there. There was work in New York. They passed around books about these places, printed in their own language, and shared them with friends and relatives.
Somehow, within a matter of months, a caravan had formed. Thousands of people, people who have lost hope of a decent life in their own country, banded together in the hope of reaching America. The countries they passed through treated them like outlaws and, no doubt, a few of them were. But most were just people, families, looking for a way to survive.
The journey to America was fraught with dangers. Too many of the emigres did not survive it. The family about which I know began the journey to America with seven members: two parents and five children, the oldest being twelve. When they arrived, there were three. The father and three of the children had died. The mother, the twelve-year-old son, and his eleven-year-old sister survived.
They crossed into America and were immediately detained. The mother was separated from her children and sent to a detention camp. Unless she had the means to provide for herself and her children – which, of course, she did not – she would be sent back. She waited in the camp for months, not knowing what had become of her children.
They had been trafficked. Separated from each other and from their mother, their lives were filled with dread. What would become of them? Would they ever be freed, as they had been promised? And, if they were, what would happen then? And, worst of all, where was their mother? Was she even alive?
We have all heard the stories of Central American caravans, of detention camps, and the separation of parents from their children. These stories saddened me, but they seemed far away and utterly intractable. This past year, when I learned my ancestors had experienced the same kinds of hardships, the contemporary stories became more real and more unacceptable.
The story I tell in this article is my 6th-great-grandfather’s story. Johann Leper immigrated from southwest Germany in 1709. His father and three of his siblings died on the journey. His mother was placed in a detention camp and eventually was sent back. He and his sister were indentured for years. It is a shame I needed an ancestor to put a face to the contemporary stories of fear and pain. I offer no solutions to the current immigration mess, only a suggestion: we must try to see that these are real people, in real trouble, with real hopes and fears. People a lot like my 6th-great-grandfather. People a lot like me.
(First Published by Gannett.)