STAYING IN THE SHADOWS

New irises after a rainstorm

I am waiting for Maria to come out of the Wellness Center with Elena and Paula. These aren’t their real names. Maria lives with her two young girls in a town not far from me. I don’t know where her husband is. In fact, I know nothing about her other than that she’s from Honduras and is in the last 3 months of pregnancy.

Today I picked her up with the two girls and took her to the nearby hospital for a pre-natal exam. That’s when she told me that one of her daughters is sick, vomiting and a fever, and that she needed to take her to the local wellness center as well. She asked me if I could take them and then leave, and they’d find their way home. I told her no, I’d wait for them, no problem.

The mother and the two girls are beautiful. Maria’s dark eyes shine with determination. She knows her work: take care of the two young, pre-school girls and her soon-to-be-born baby. My guess is she doesn’t spend much time wondering what her life’s about, her job is as clear as day. Wondering what our lives are about is more of a First World concern.

Her daughters’ eyes are fathomless. I wonder how much they’ve heard and seen in their short lives, how many hurried phone calls they’ve overheard, how many lowered voices. By now I’ve driven a number of undocumented migrants in our area, mostly mothers with young children who are remarkably quiet and well behaved. You don’t have to teach these kids to blend into the landscape, not have a crying jag out in public or make a scene, not pester their mother loudly about a candy or toy they want to buy in a local store.

The families I meet go everywhere together. For one thing, the parents don’t dare leave their children alone. Secondly, though they know other undocumented families, especially family members who’ve come here before them, that’s for holidays and celebrations. When you go to the hospital or to see the doctor, each family goes together but alone, with its own perambulator and car seats. Nobody’s left behind.

I’m proud of the services they get in our neck of the woods, of the community hospital that provides pre-natal exams, the local wellness center that won’t turn anyone away, the local police who prefer not to bother them so long as no crime is committed other than being here illegally. The single biggest “crime” is driving without a license, and that’s where people like me come in. I’m proud of the local groups that have sprung up since Donald Trump’s election to support these families, providing sanctuary, car rides, money, and medical care.

Both my parents separately escaped post-Holocaust Eastern Europe and came to Israel illegally. My father had fake papers, my mother had nothing but a 3 year-old orphaned nephew and the clothes on their backs. At the age of 18 she smuggled both of them aboard a ship in Marseilles and managed to make it all the way to Haifa, Israel, undetected.

Once there, the British forced all ships to dock offshore, with passengers disembarking onto a motorboat that brought them to shore only after a thorough check of their papers. While she might have considered swimming for it, she knew the little boy couldn’t. There was nothing to do but give themselves up to the British. I remember so well how she described that scene with the British officer:

He was a big man in uniform waiting to finish up and get back on the boat, typically British, heavy, with bulging jowls. I was small and thin. I took Menachem with me and approached him. He didn’t even look at me. I think I had to say “Sir” several times, probably because I whispered it from fear, before he looked down at us, and then I told him that we were stowaways. He got completely red, his entire face turned purple with rage. He started yelling, and Menachem started crying, and I was sure he wouldn’t let us off but would send us back to Marseilles.

That didn’t happen. They took them to shore and put them in a refugee camp that wasn’t half as nice as the place I picked up Maria and her kids from today. When I look at Maria’s girls and the way they look to the side, trying to hide from my gaze, I think of the spunky 18 year-old who took a little blonde boy with her on her long route out of a bloodied Europe to the Promised Land, and finally came out of the shadows to confess her audacity to a tall and heavy uniformed British officer with protruding jowls that got very, very red.