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Old family voices echo in pleas of the stranger


Voices command my attention. They are in many languages and yet, like on Pentecost, all in one. They are the voices of the Communion of Saints -- my long dead ancestors from Ireland, Germany and Czechoslovakia, and my living clients from El Salvador and Egypt, from Mexico and sub-Saharan Africa.

I hear an Irish great-great-grandmother, a tenant farmer, wailing over the bodies of those who starved when the potato crop failed and her English landlords exported Irish wheat to other countries for the cash. I hear her lament the deaths on the coffin ships that brought her to America. She weeps with the discovery that the Promised Land told her, “No Irish need apply,” except for the filthy and dangerous jobs in the pits of mines and in the blasting tunnels of railroads, jobs that sucked the life out of her men.

And yet, instead of her lilting Irish accent, I hear the melodious tones of Spanish as I speak with the 20-year-old who sits in my office holding his papers between two stumps of hands. He had left the poverty of Mexico hoping for a better life, but he lost both hands in an accident on the killing floors of the meatpacking plant. He isn’t complaining that he had to do the dirty, backbreaking, dangerous work that Americans don’t want. He wants to be allowed to stay in the United States long enough to get artificial fingers and rehabilitation. He attends English classes daily, and longs for a driver’s license.

My Irish great-great grandmother wails at yet another loss of dreams and hopes.

I hear my Czech ancestors recalling the centuries during which alternate armies marched through their villages, killing, burning, stealing, raping. What mattered was who had the weapons and the power, not human dignity, nor respect for women, nor honoring the fruits of another’s labor.

But the vision that accompanies the voice is not my Caucasian predecessor. It is a beautiful, soft-spoken young African woman of quiet dignity. She dared to express political opinions. Knowledge of the regime’s barbarity had not prepared her for the time soldiers found her home alone and spent the night gang-raping her. She did not volunteer her story, but responded tearfully to my questions. Bravely, she overcame her nightmares and her shame to ask for amnesty. But my government has refused her. She lacks, it says, “a well-founded fear” of persecution if she returns to her country.

My Czech ancestors recoil at the brutality twice visited upon this young woman, first by soldiers, then by bureaucrats.

My German forefathers remembered pouring out of Prussia and other Germanic states to avoid forced conscription. They wanted to stay on their farms and in their villages, not be turned into cannon fodder for local nobles bent on using them to war against each other. How many who could not escape were denied the chance to grow up, much less grow old, yanked from their families and friends to do battle for greedy princes? They were not cowardly: Their courage showed in the risks they took to leave all they knew to escape across the ocean to a country that was little more than a dream, a country with a strange language and strange ways.

How does it happen that the German and the Spanish both meld into the same language when the man from El Salvador shows me the scars inflicted by the “other side” during the murderous conflict that killed Archbishop Oscar Romero and thousands of Salvadorans, along with the American nuns and the lay worker, and the Jesuits and their housekeeper? We did not want this war. We did not want our young men taken away by whichever side could capture them. We did not want our women and children terrified as both sides demanded the loyalties of our villages. Like the U.S. Civil War, this struggle fractured families. When my client and cousins on his mother’s side were hunted by cousins on his father’s side, they fled. One who dared to return after the war ended was murdered by cousins whose fury still burned. Will my government accept and protect my Salvadoran client?

My Czech forefathers sit at the right hand of God and plead that this member of the body of Christ be given safety and the chance to grow old.

The last ancient voice to sound in my ears is again Irish. He was old and bent. He had kept the faith when the English tried to stamp it out of the Irish soul. He attended hedgerow Masses in the fields, with watchmen posted to sound the warning if the British troops appeared. He and his wife taught the children their prayers, but warned of the dangers. They took great risks to pray together, as had their mothers and fathers before them. The English had taken everything of value and filled his life with oppression but they could not take his faith. No one could take his faith.

Maybe the kids would call it morphing, the way the Gaelic becomes Arabic-accented English, and the Celt becomes a Copt. Even more ancient than my Irish Catholic roots are those of this Egyptian man whose Coptic Christian faith dates back to the time of the first Christians. And like my ancestors, his land was overrun by a people of a different faith, a people willing to put others to the sword in the name of God. (Has humankind ever been free from this warped idea of piety? Did the Crusades please the man from Galilee who welcomed the oppressed?) My client and his fellow Copts are victims of systematic terror by Islamic militants, with active support from his government. He has narrowly escaped death several times, and almost lost his wife and son in a vicious attack. But the world seems not to notice. Isolated and seemingly forgotten, his people cling to their faith, struggling against forced conversions and slaughters of people at worship.

The old Irishman nods sorrowfully, knowing the unique ache of having your faith community eroded as many wear down under the onslaught of hate.

My ancestral voices are an amalgam of the history of people whose blood is mine. My clients’ stories are real and individual. As I listen, the voices of the many languages are understood as one: the voice of God present in God’s people, so different and so alike.

Rosemary Anton is an attorney practicing immigration law in Omaha, Neb.

National Catholic Reporter, June 1, 2001