In July, the mayor of my hometown, a rust-belt city in upstate New York, offered to shelter Central American immigrant children in a convent on the city’s North Side. The federal government was looking at the abandoned building in Syracuse as a possible place to house one or two hundred of them. The mayor said they would stay for just a month, then they would move on, beyond the walls of the convent, beyond Syracuse. They would live with families or sponsors while officials reviewed their cases, alongside those of tens of thousands of other minors who crossed into the country this year. A few weeks ago, we learned they are not coming to Syracuse; there were enough shelters for them farther south. But my mind travels back to the North Side, many miles from the US-Mexico border.
In her book Notes From No Man’s Land, essayist Eula Biss writes that on certain New York City streets, she found “the New York I loved, with the imperfect, ambiguous, hesitant love that I have come to recognize as my own. It was the city that existed on the margins of the story.” My love, too, is imperfect, ambiguous, hesitant. Sometimes I feel that it is buried too deeply in my heart.
My family talks about Syracuse the city as the place we have always known to be our own. But the North Side, where we started out, is a complicated place—settled by Germans, reclaimed by Italians, emptied by white flight. Today, immigrants from Bhutan, Sudan, Vietnam, and other nations call it home. It sees more violence and poverty than a neighborhood should. Those who are comfortably middle- class have left. So now we say that the neighborhood is “not the best.” We hear languages there we cannot speak.
The neighborhood has always been a place for immigrants, for those who are uncertain about their place in the world. The North Side is where my father’s family lived when they came to America. I know it for its Columbus Day parade, the red-white-green of its flag, its enormous church and monastery, monks in dark robes with rope belts, and the Italian athletic club as I coast down the hill into the city, onto a highway where the streets are wider and the traffic is faster. It exists, for me, as part of a familial cultural mythology, from the time before my family settled into comfortable suburban lives. Better schools. Backyards. People who looked like us.
When my father was young, generations lived in the same house, together. He sometimes points out the buildings to me on drives through the city. I do not know exactly where our relatives lived, and I never learned Italian, but I remember that we, too, were once foreigners on the North Side. When I was younger, I went with my father to buy food—extra-virgin olive oil, strong cheese, salami glistening with fat—from the market stocked with imports. I visited that red-brick church. I might have caught a glimpse of the Italian flag. But with arrival, there comes departure, and my family has let the North Side go. My great-aunt and great-uncle worried, as their block became rougher over the years. They stayed until their health forced them to leave a few years ago. Now, it belongs to other people—people we don’t consider our kin.
I learned the most about today’s North Side from the children. In the summer of 2011, the elementary schoolers I taught played “guns,” and when we scolded them, we didn’t know that’s what they’d seen in Somalia, guns and bodies and violence and guns. I taught small
girls in headscarves and boys with names I couldn’t quite pronounce at first.
During another summer in Syracuse, I walked camp trails and swam in a lake with sisters who had to share a bathing suit between them. I saw young women nervous in the waiting room of a clinic that operated on a sliding scale—the kind of clinic that is being closed across the country. These are the people who live uncertain lives.
The mayor held town hall meetings in July. A retired teacher offered to teach the children English. Other voices, fewer of them, insisted that the children were members of MS-13 gangs; that they would roam city streets already threatened by violence, that their presence would encourage other “illegals” to come to the United States. Another attendee asked the mayor why we were afraid of children. An old man stood up and asked the crowd to remember the words of Christ: “What you do for the least of your brethren, you do unto me.”
At a protest, they stood on opposite sides of the street, debated with posters, shouted at each other. I learned this all from newspapers—the Syracuse Post-Standard and the Washington Post. I learned this all from other people’s words.
“Be the village it takes.”
“No illegal dumping allowed.”
“You want to deport refugee kids … but don’t care that
Justin Bieber is still here?”
“UR TAX $$$ 4 ILLEGALS”
“Bienvenidos a los ninos.”
“My family did it right. Everyone else can too.” “Welcome to Syracuse. You are loved!”
Jim Greenman, an early childhood educator, wrote that “childhood is when human beings should fall in love with the
world and all its untidy and sometimes scary complexity, delights, and mysteries.” I imagine that it is hard to fall in love with a world that, by all accounts, does not appear to love you back, whether for the color of your skin or the sound of your vowels or where you happen to stay. Children are imperfect, of course; they would have filled the halls of that convent where black-habited nuns once walked through solemn, with simple lives, with laughter. They are untidy and unpredictable. They would want attention; they will want to bend and break the rules. We would forgive them anyway, because you cannot blame children.
Sometimes I, too, want to come home. I haven’t been there since January, when the air was cold and the streets slick with ice. I talk with other Syracuse expats, and we all haven’t been back lately. We have gone looking for other places to come home to.
This summer, I watched from another city as the voices rose in Syracuse: the children are delinquent, violent, unbelonging. They carry guns. They cost us money. They are not our problem. They are not our children and they could never be anything like our children. They are somehow responsible, should somehow bear the burden, for fractured countries and failing economies.
I wanted to ask those angry people, remember when you were called spic and polock and kike and dirty Irish and your children were teased? Remember when you were not wanted for the thickness of your accent, the strangeness of your clothes, your belief in a peculiar and particular God? I was not called such names, so I never carried that shame, but sometimes I am sure that my blood does.
The translator Robert Fagles said that he couldn’t decide which of Homer’s epics he liked the best. In The New York Times’ words, “Some days were Iliadic, he said—you felt you were in a war—and some were more like the Odyssey, when all you wanted to do was go home.”
By now I’ve traveled through both of those poems; I recall the North Side through my family’s memories, and I found restless anger in the pages of Syracuse newspapers. I tried to understand through translations of what had happened. Still, these children’s journeys are longer and their wars are fiercer.
No one knows what it would have meant if these children had found their way to this rust-belt city. They have learned that the United States will not necessarily be kind to them. If they had traveled to my city, I hope we would have been kind to them. For now, they wait, likely to return to the places they came from. They wait for their immunizations and their court hearings while I watch, and read, and wait—far away from it all.
The author is grateful to the Syracuse Post-Standard and the Washington Post’s coverage of this story, from which many of the details in this piece were drawn.
Illustration by Zachary Schiller