Immigrants and Prejudice

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A Homesteader, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My mother’s family immigrated as Ukrainian homesteaders to the Alberta plains in 1898. Mom was the first in her family to go to school since Canada offered schooling only to English-speaking children. Her older siblings never learned to speak English well. Her younger siblings, Helen and Alex, followed her in school.

When Mom grew up, she left the farm about 1925 and headed to Edmonton to study nursing. Soon her sister Helen and brother Alex joined her as they studied to become teachers. Her brother’s friend also moved in “to help make ends meet.” The guys ate them out of house and home. One time my mother said they were down to their last quarter. So they bought a quart of strawberries and some cream and feasted on the luscious fresh fruit —so expensive in Northern Canada.

Mother obtained her nursing degree at Edmonton Hospital in 1928. She followed her mother’s advice and left for Seattle — just as the depression was about to hit. Four years later she married my father, Hans Pederson, a Danish immigrant who rose to become one of Seattle’s largest early 20th century contractors.

Her reticence  about both my father and her Canadian upbringing launched me into detective work after her death. I was already  more than seventy, but family secrets only bring more curiosity.

Mother’s siblings, Alex and Helen, returned to Andrew, Alberta where Helen taught and Alex became principal of the Andrew School. Even though Andrew was their home town and their school, Canadians continued to harbor such prejudice against the Ukrainian community that a generation later, college-educated descendants of Ukrainian immigrants could find jobs only in Ukrainian schools.

Maine Writer Elizabeth Strout Meets Immigrant Writers

“The novelist Elizabeth Strout left Maine but it didn’t leave her,” states Ariel Levy in the May 1, 2017 New Yorker.

Strout’s books resonate with me. Maine claims my heart too.

Strout’s people do not live in Maine tourist towns along the coast. The characters in Olive Kittredge, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, either cannot  leave the state that defines them, or or else they feel driven to leave it. The Congregational minister in  Abide With Me must work his way through the family tragedy with his daughter in the inland hamlet away from the coastal Maine town favored by his wife’s summer-season parents. Drama is understated, inexpressible. People cannot communicate their feelings. In one interview Strout states that when growing up she had a sense of “just swimming in all their ridiculous extra emotion.”

Levy says “a recurring theme in Strout’s novels is the angry, aching sense of abandonment small-town dwellers feel when their loved ones depart.” It is almost as if they are emigrating to another country.

My parents were both immigrants to the U.S; my father Hans Pederson from Denmark, my mother Doris Huchulak, a Ukrainian Canadian from Alberta. My Danish friend and fellow blogger, mariaholm51, sent this wrenching painting that shows the pain of immigration to the Facebook page currently celebrating my memoir, (same title for both)  “Mysterious Builder of Seattle Landmarks.”

 

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Edvard Pedersen, Emigrants at Copenhagen Harbor 1890

 

My January 22, 2016 blog, “Maine Nonprofit Helps Immigrant Kids” described one young immigrant’s experience at The Telling Room a Portland, Maine youth writing program. On a recent visit to The Telling Room, Levy tells us that  Strout met refugee and immigrant  high schoolers mostly from Africa and the Middle East.

“The students stood in a circle and told Strout what they were working on. ‘My name is Abass and i’m trying to define what home is,” a teen-ager from Ethiopia said.’ Steff rom Burundi told her, ‘I’m writing about how I find my voice in America.’ Another boy said, ‘I’m writing about second chances.'”

After wrenching leave-takings from towns, cities, or countries, lives becomes either better or worse for those who leave and those who remain. They are never the same.

 

Immigrant Ukrainians keep the Easter Customs

 

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Orthodox Cross Courtesy Wikimedia Commons Withgol the Webmaster

 

 

 

In 1898 my great grandparents,Stephan and Sanxira Tokaruk, along with my grandparents, Wasyl and Anna Huchulak, left the estate in Ukraine  where Stephan attended the horses when their landlord offered them passage to the new world. They crossed Canada on the Canadian Pacific Railroad and became Alberta homesteaders.

In 2009 I went to a family reunion near Edmonton where we gathered at the now derelict 1910 family homestead and I met fifty first cousins. The clan helped me understand my grandparents’ early challenges and my mother’s childhood. I wish there had been time to watch my cousin Judy design her intricately patterned Ukrainian eggs.

We stopped at the onion-domed Orthodox Church filled with the religious icons that became my grandmother’s passion during her life as a struggling homesteader. The little cemetery is filled with pioneer graves. Every headstone bears the characteristic Ukrainian cross with its slanted crosspiece below the arms of the conventional cross. After the long winter, descendants of these pioneers still gather at the cemetery for picnics on Orthodox Easter.

It was a privilege to meet my mother’s family at last. While today’s shifting lifestyles often create a sense of impermanence, my trip “home” showed me that fragments of the Huchulak DNA had seeped through earlier generations to my own in ongoing customs and habits.

 

 

 

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