The Law Office of Robert D. Ahlgren and Associates is partnering with Fwd.US to promote and celebrate National Immigrant Heritage Month. During the month of June, we will be featuring profiles of some of our own members’ family immigrant stories.
My father was born in 1948 in Baghdad, Iraq, home to a longstanding Jewish community of more than 2500 years. Jews had thrived in Baghdad for centuries, and many accumulated extensive wealth and were permitted to play important roles in civic and political life. My grandmother’s family was religiously active: both my great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were rabbis in the Jewish community. My grandfather and his family were successful businessmen.
Due to a combination of Nazi propaganda, anti-Zionist sentiment, a new sense of Arab nationalism that excluded Arab Jews, and many other factors, the status Jews held in Iraq began to deteriorate in the mid-1930s. In June 1941, hundreds of Jews were massacred in the pogrom known as the Farhud, and in 1948, after the establishment of the State of Israel, many anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist laws were enacted. Jews were dismissed from their positions and targeted for arrest and harassment. Some were tried and executed on false charges of treason. Shortly thereafter began the Iraqi-Jewish exodus from their millennia-old homeland. 70 years ago, there were approximately 135,000 Jews in Iraq; Baghdad alone had 90,000 Jews, about one-third of the city’s entire population. The number of Jews currently living in Baghdad can almost surely be counted on one hand.
My father’s family remained as long as they could in Baghdad but eventually was forced to flee in 1958. They spent about a year in Portugal and Switzerland waiting for their visas and arrived in the United States in 1960. Other members of my family moved to Canada or Israel. My grandparents settled in Forest Hills, New York, with my father and my uncle. While the language my grandparents spoke was not passed on to me, this history is very a part of me, from the smells of my grandmother’s cooking to hearing her speak Arabic with relatives of her generation.
My father moved to Boston and began working as a respiratory therapist at the Dana-Farber hospital in Boston, where my mother worked as a nurse. They met over a patient in the ICU, and the rest is history. My mother was born in New York and grew up in New Jersey. My mother’s parents were both the children of immigrants who also fled horrific anti-Jewish regimes: my grandfather’s family from Poland and my grandmother’s from Russia. The journey from Russia to the United States took more than a year, and two of my grandmother’s siblings died on the way. My grandmother was the first child born in the United States. Both my grandfather and grandmother grew up speaking Yiddish, which was the language they spoke to each other when they didn’t want my mother and her sisters to understand. Sadly, this language was also not passed on to me.
I think about the number of countries my family members traveled through in their determination to reach the safety of America’s hallowed shores; the length and danger of their journeys did not deter them. I think about the pride they feel to be citizens of this country. I think about the hodgepodge of languages my ancestors spoke, the differences in their cultures. Some were poor, some wealthy; some educated, some not. Yet all were welcomed here and given a chance to thrive. Where else but in the United States? I pray only that our country’s doors remain wide open to each successive generation of immigrants, as they were to my family.
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