On Immigrants and Refugees

Opa
Last night I caught to re-broadcast on 60 Minutes about the guy who is the founder of the Chobani yogurt company. ” Chobani” means ” shepherd a peaceful word” he said.

The interview dealt with his being an immigrant to the US, his practice of hiring immigrants and refugees and his philanthropy going to help refugees in other parts of the world. I couldn’t help but think of my grandfather as I watched. I was 13 when he died, the first major loss in my young life. It was a long time ago so my memories are not as detailed as I’d like and there is no one left to ask really.

My grandfather, ” Opa” in German to me, came here in the 1920s w a wife and 3 year old daughter. He was terrified of Hitler. 

After some horrible treatment by a boss because he was German and a resulting period of illness, Opa started his own business. He was a mechanical engineer. His specialty became testing equipment such as shock testing machines and vibration testing of manufactured items. For example, there was an ad on TV in the ’60s with a General Electric TV being dropped on a shock tester made by my grandfather.

 Family had settled in the NYC/NJ area when they got to America but after his fledgling business seemed to take hold, he moved the family and company up to the Fingerlakes region where, when my mom was 16 and my aunt 11, he had bought 60 acres of land and two cottages 10 mi out the west side of Skaneateles Lake.

For those familiar with Skaneateles, at the foot of Highland Avenue is a low brick building with ” LAB” carved into the brick over the front door. That was his company. My mom designed that logos and he never would tell what the letters stood for.

He lived at 98 W. Genesee, the big Civil war style house across from the cemetery, a house a stop on the Underground Railroad. My grandmother showed me the depression in the side garden where the escaping slaves went into the tunnel that took them across beneath the street and opened way in the back section of the cemetery.

Anyway here is why Chobani evoked this memory stream. My dad and uncle worked for my grandfather too, both Americans born and raised, a Texan and a New Englander. His factory consisted of the front offices where I sold many a Girl Scout cookie, and the “shop” where big burly men built his ideas and made them come alive in 3D.

He hired refugees and immigrants for his business. At one point I remember my dad telling me there were men working from Greece, Czechoslovakia, France, Ireland, and Germany. Maybe more.

Some of them had little or no English. Having been treated with ignorance and bigotry when he got it his new country, once established, my grandfather paid it forward by making a workspace safe for all. I remember the many languages I could hear when I went to see my dad there sometimes.

Another aspect of his paying it forward was when he bought our camp. It was only two small cottages barged across the lake. So each summer, he brought several teen city boys up from downstate. Over the years there ended up being 5 major buildings, 14 bedrooms and all of our extended family lived there 8 weeks every summer. Back when it was just the cottages, he hired these boys to help him build on new rooms. The deal was, you got out of the city in summer heat, worked all morning and then were free to play all afternoon plus room and board. And one of those boys went to medical school courtesy of my grandfather and took care of him at the end of his life.

During World War ll, my grandfather sent packages of food, dried foods and canned goods w cigarettes hidden sometimes and also life-saving medicine to help his only nephew who was orphaned with polio. In that time without computers, my grandfather searched endlessly for his best friend, the doctor who delivered my mom, who was both Jewish and physically handicapped. He never found him. 

My grandmother had 8 siblings some w children and somehow my grandfather managed to get enough food and clothing and medicine through the lines to help everyone survive. That nephew, a refugee, came to live with him at age 15 in Skaneateles and went on to graduate Syracuse University and Berkeley and became the comptroller of the Bayer Drug Company.

Opa had 42 patents filed with the US patent office. One year I went onto their website and discovered this treasure trove. A lot of them became machines. He was still working up until he got sick and then died at age 75.

He was also an artist, and I am lucky enough to have a box of his drawings all done on snips and pieces of spare paper of things he saw on his endless student walks along the North Sea shore or through German cities. 

When I came along and showed promise as an artist, he was there the night of the award ceremony for my 3 rd grade Scholastic art award in the then-new Everson. He was the only family member who pushed me to go into the arts. I took the long way around, but I made it. I hope he knows. We both have July birthdays and always celebrated them along with my uncles’ at camp. 

As the Steve Kroft said last night ” Sometimes refugees and Immigrants bring jobs to this country that boost the economy.” 

My grandfather was one of them.
A Bowl of Berries

Rachael Z. Ikins 
I step barefoot out of steam dreams

early morning, three note celebration

robin on the roof, cardinal voices chiding

their fledglings, sparrow chatter and 

a lone seagull swooping 

through, sounds like a cat or 

a lost child.
Scents of July lilies and milkweed fill the air.

Green everywhere. Blackcap vines’

curlicue tangles at the foot of walnut trunk,

glossy red and purpling fruits beg my fingers, 

my lips, turn purple too.
Small moths fuss among grass stems. Insects, 

wings like lace flutter across the yard. Childhood 

summers and a bowl of berries for 

my grandfather’s birthday.
He was so easy to gift, berries and a fresh caught bass 

fried in sweet butter, summer presents 

a child could create.

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2 Responses to “On Immigrants and Refugees”

  1. clover58 Says:

    Amazing memories, Rachael! I was thinking of my grandfather this morning when I was enticed to read about yours!

  2. Joyce Says:

    Really wonderful prose and accompanying poetry. The visual descriptions are terrific.

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