For many refugees, America is still the land of hope
The human catastrophe in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of US troops mocked America’s image as a safe haven for the persecuted peoples of the world. Cynicism about the United States and its role on the world stage is the mood of the hour. But one cure for cynicism is the discipline of memory: my trip to this tiny, ragged island in the Tyrrhenian Sea reminded me why so many people still look to America when their future looks bleak.
A century ago, in 1921, Giuseppe Aiello left his home in Ventotene, boarded the SS Patria and sailed from Naples to New York City. The boat manifest listed his profession as a “hairdresser”. He was 16 years old. Although he had little education and spoke practically no English, he found work and learned his trade. After all, he owned his own barber shop in midtown Manhattan, just blocks from Pennsylvania Station.
The barber was my grandfather, one of ten children of Vincenzo and Marianna Aiello. Although some of his siblings followed him to the United States, he never saw his parents again. Given the deep meaning of la famiglia Among the Italians, my grandfather made one of the most painful decisions you can imagine. Many other Italians did too: from 1920 to 1924, about 250,000 of them left everything to get to the United States. Why?
Just like in Afghanistan today, the ravages of the war had a lot to do with it. The industrialized carnage of World War I bankrupted European economies. Although Italy was on the winning side of the conflict, its society was in tatters. About 578,000 soldiers died. Returned soldiers faced appalling poverty and had few job prospects. In addition, the influenza virus killed almost as many Italians as the First World War.
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In 1921 Italy was on the verge of a massive collapse of law and order. Parliament was corrupt, the monarchy unloved. There were fears of a communist takeover. The historian RJB Bosworth writes: “For Italy, the lowest of the great powers, the poorest of the great economies, the most fragile of the great societies … the conversion from war to peace brought with it a sea of problems.” The country was ripe for an ideology, which promised to restore the glory of Rome.
Enter Benito Mussolini. As an ex-communist, Mussolini founded his fascist party in 1919. Within two years he came to power with his “black shirts” and declared the end of the Italian experiment in liberal democracy. “For the fascist everything is in the state,” he announced, “and nothing human or spiritual exists, let alone of value, outside the state.” Islamic State.
Mussolini mocked what he called “the putrid corpse of freedom” and intended to preside over the funeral. In 1926 his fascist government wiped out what was left of democracy and civil rights: opposition political parties and trade unions were banned; The freedom of the press was abolished and travel abroad restricted.
Next began a “residence permit” policy, which rounded up thousands of political opponents and relocated to remote islands. The most important among them was the island of Ventotene.
In ancient Rome, Ventotene was a prison island where the Caesars sent their adulterous wives and daughters. Criminals, radicals, persecuted Christians – all of them lived a desperate existence on Ventotene. Mussolini has revived its reputation. At least 2,000 Italians were imprisoned here under his regime, and there are signs all over the island marking the places of imprisonment. Souvenir shops even sell t-shirts with the words: isola di Confino, Island of captivity.
The Italians, fortunate enough to flee Italy in the fever of fascism, had another dream. Of course, the United States has not always been a welcoming place. The US Immigration Act of 1924, for example, drastically restricted immigration from central, eastern and southern Europe. Thanks to bigotry and xenophobia, one of the main goals of the legislation was to keep Italians out.
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Yet even in its ugliest form, the United States looked like a sanctuary in a world gone mad. It must have looked like this to my grandfather. It certainly looks like this today for the thousands of Afghans who desperately want to be rescued from the Taliban.
If we open our doors, they will enrich our national life. Because it’s a familiar story. Like countless other immigrants whose life prospects forced them to leave their homeland, my grandfather’s love for his adopted home grew. He bought a house in Brooklyn, got married, had four children, thirteen grandchildren and twenty-three great-grandchildren.
A century ago, he made a choice for all of us: America.
This piece originally appeared on The National Interest https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/many-refugees-america-still-land-hope-194409