It could have been me


When I was six months old I was an enemy of two countries. 

Yes, that’s right. Six months old, and not hated by one country, but two. One of them declared me stateless and threatened to send me to the other. Possibly to death.

My father was Russian, and a refugee from that country and its 1917 Communist revolution. Had my grandfather not fled, he would have been executed. My father was a baby at that time, and grew up in what he thought was a safe haven — Yugoslavia.

My mother was Yugoslavian. Her childhood too included exile, from a part of the country given to Italy after World War I. She too thought she was living in a safe haven.

Both of them believed they were happy, secure, and financially successful citizens of their country.

But by the time of my birth in 1949, Russia and Yugoslavia and its communist dictators, Stalin and Tito, were no longer friends. Then it got worse.

Soon, Tito declared that all Russians in Yugoslavia were spies, and therefore enemies. These were mostly people who, like my family, had fled Russia 30 years earlier and were considered enemies in that land as well. So were their children, I guess. 

All of us were declared stateless, our nationality stolen from us with the swipe of a pen. If we waited too long, like some neighbors had, we could be sent directly to Russia. A one-way ticket to the gulags. The death camps of Siberia.

We fled, and ended up across the border in what is now Italy, but was yet another disputed territory. The city of Trieste was fought over by Yugoslavia and Italy for years after the end of World War II and was a United Nations protected zone. That, for us, was where Yugoslavia ended and the rest of the world began.

We arrived there in January 1950, along with thousands of other unexpected refugees, another flood bursting onto a world already filled with millions of the Second World War’s leftover lost and homeless. 

We were crowded into a place that — as I learned 40 years later — had been a concentration camp during World War II. We spent four years there.

People often feel sorry for me when they hear this and learn that I grew up in a refugee camp. But I was fortunate.

Today’s America makes me understand more clearly than ever how fortunate I was. I was not legal at the moment of arrival across that border. I was stateless and seeking asylum. 

I was an enemy of two countries before I could talk, or think clearly, or understand what a country was, or come close to comprehending the concept of an enemy.

I could have been separated from my parents at the border. I could’ve been sent back —although there was no “back” to be sent to. I could’ve been greeted by an administration like Donald Trump’s. The way my country is now greeting families just like mine.

Instead, I was welcomed by those who lived in the camp; I was carried in my mother‘s arms to the barracks where we would spend the next four years; I was loved by the homeless adults who surrounded me.

It was all a gift beyond imagining. Writing these very words has brought tears to my eyes. It has finally given me an answer to the question: “What comes to your mind when you hear about what’s going on at our borders, about the children separated from their parents?”

I realize that it could have been me.