In the Spring of 1916, Levkhow Koplchevksy paid to smuggle his two young sons Andrei and Mikhail from Kiev, then part of the Russian Empire, to Bremen, Germany, where they boarded a trans-Atlantic passenger ship bound for Newark, N.J. Crossing international boundaries, which then mostly consisted of trenchlines, they risked life, limb and fortune to make it to the United States.
Eager to become Americans, Andrei and Mikhail, no older than 15 and 13, promptly changed their names while being processed by officials in New Jersey. Andrei Americanized to Andrew; Mikhail to Milton. Their last name lost its Ukrainian tint as well, shortened to Kopley. Andrew later moved to Tully, N.Y., where he married a local woman and fulfilled his dreams of operating his own farm. Milton moved back to New Jersey, and later became my great-grandfather.
Now, almost 100 years later, the process seems to repeat itself for millions of people fleeing war and persecution in the Middle East and North Africa. Running from the brutal acts of ISIS, from unemployment, barrel bombs and Boko Haram, thousands of refugees pour into Europe by the day, albeit with a little bit more acceptance than those refugees who attempted to find prosperity in Europe in 1916. Looking back at my own story, however, a story that was shared by thousands of other people fleeing both the Bolsheviks and the horrors of World War One a hundred years ago, there’s a recurring theme that has permeated through all the decades in between.
The American Dream, despite all of their flaws, falsities and contradictions, is a very real idea for those who see it from the outside. Shutting the doors on those who wish to share this experience with us is not a continuation of an American tradition, but rather the betrayal of our promise to the world as a beacon of democracy.
There is much evidence arguing both in favor of, and against, the admittance of refugees into the United States. Yet, if someone wishes to come to this country and fulfill their dream, let them. My great-grandfather worked his way up from his early teenage years, often labeled as a communist because of his heritage (the early-20th century “terrorist”) and in an era when welfare programs didn’t exist.
All this brings me back to my point: that the United States has long been a point of hope and prosperity for those in conflicted areas in the world, and denying refugees an opportunity to succeed here would be an unjust counter to our American way of life. Save for those of Native American descent, we are all products of immigrants who came to the United States looking for a better life. To shut out others who seek to fulfill the same dream would be a disservice to our traditions and values and to our own family heritage.