I asked my dad why he never learned to speak Polish. He said he knew a few words but that his mom and dad would not let the children speak anything but English. He said that in the 1920’s, speaking a foreign language meant that you were a foreigner and you would not be able to go to school, learn a trade, or get a good paying job.

People left their homeland seeking opportunity or safety. They were committed to survive in the new land. They would do what it takes to assimilate…to be part of the culture of their new home. They were not looking for hand-outs. They were looking for a hand-up.

“Just tell me what I have to do. Point me in the right direction,” they would cry.

Assimilate: to integrate, adapt, adjust, conform, blend in, fit in.

By coming to America, they were willing to change. These immigrants focused on assimilation so that the first generation would have a better life. The result was the first generation children became successful business and professional men and women. They were taught to respect the opportunity to learn and succeed.

Years ago, there were Irish, Polish, Italian, Chinese, etc communities in most cities. These communities accommodated the new arrivals. They had churches, social clubs and even sports teams. In the Lawrenceville area of Pittsburgh, there were Polish, Irish, German and Italian catholic churches and each had their own grade schools and some even provided high schools.

Keep in mind that these communities had free public schools, but the people chose to pay extra to have their children educated in a more regimented curriculum. They wanted a curriculum that would support their family goals to assimilate and would give their children the best chances for success. They invested in their children’s future.

The teams from these ethnic communities competed outside their locale and students began to assimilate. The students learned to recognize and respect different cultures and customs. The families forced the children to move out and move on. If their children were to become successful, success would have to come from outside the community. Today, these ethnic communities are mostly memories.

But what happened to the few who clung to their heritage? What happened to those who tried to hang on to their past…to bring their past with them?

Vegetate: to stagnate, behave in a dull or inactive way, to loaf.

Ellis Island

The immigrants who wanted to bring their past (what they left behind) with them resisted assimilation and thus vegetated. In the 1990’s I met Russian immigrants who were sponsored in order to come to the United States. They lived in a small neighborhood in Pittsburgh. After 6 months and unable to find work (they could not speak any English), they became eligible for complete support from the welfare system. They received food stamps, rent support and educational and full medical benefits at the expense of the working people of Pennsylvania. They started families…free. They were able to stay in their little Russian communities, speak their native language and had no incentive to move on. Our free welfare system was better than the Communist/Socialist system that they had in Russia. In Russia they would have had to work for their benefits. Why assimilate when you can get paid to vegetate?

In 1993, I met a young Bosnian man who had escaped the ethnic cleansing that was going on in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia. The Serbian army had come into their town to take the women and children away. The men and boys were to be executed. Elver was lined up against the wall with the men in his village. The soldiers were getting ready to fire their weapons.

The military commander saw Elver’s mom standing in the crowd. The commander and Elver’s mom were classmates from the same town and went to school together for 10 years.

“What are you doing here,” he asked?

“That boy is my son,” she cried.

“Take him away, now,” he ordered.

Mom grabbed Elver and took him away. Later that night, Elver was taken to an area where he escaped and ultimately ended up in Denmark. He went to Denmark, then to England and finally to Erie, Pennsylvania. At 18, he got a job in a plastic plant and mastered the language. He walked 5 miles to work, saved his money, bought a bike, saved his money, rented a larger apartment and took in other Bosnian refugees as boarders. In the plastic plant, he was able to translate for the workers and was subsequently promoted to team leader and then foreman. He charged rent, he charged for transportation, he saved, and he studied and eventually was able to go to the university. He became an engineer.

Elver knew that his past would not help him. He had to work to assimilate within this new culture and society. He eventually made a place for his sister and mother to join him. Through Elver, I met many Bosnian refugees. I never met a lazy one. I never heard them complaining about what social benefit they could claim. They only wanted opportunity. Just point me in the direction and I will go.

We see people today who come to this country and try to change this country. They come here for opportunity but want things to be like their old country without opportunity. They come here to avoid poverty, disease, or unrest but they want to change things so that we have poverty, disease and unrest. They come here to seek peace and happiness but demand change to meet their comforts.

This country was built on the backs of immigrants. Greatness of each generation came through assimilation. Learning from each other. Blending customs, cultures, ideas, and talents, into a cauldron of innovation, strength, and leadership. Each migration brought something special…something new…something original. More importantly, they assimilated.

If our new immigrants focus on assimilation, they will produce the next generation of leaders and innovators. If they focus on the comforts of vegetation, they will produce the next generation of tomatoes and potatoes. If we facilitate the assimilators, we will grow. If we facilitate those who wish to vegetate, we will get people who demand more, contribute less and still have a vote. It is a choice for all of us.

Make it a great day

Dr L