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Immigrant irony

Merrillville, Indiana

From the bustling Chinatown of San Francisco, to the African and Caribbean villages of Brooklyn and the vast Hispanic suburbs of the southern border states, the US is home to more migrant communities than perhaps any other place on Earth.

Driving through the ‘rust belt’ on my way to visit relatives recently, I gained a little insight into just one of these communities dotted across the American landscape.

The declining manufacturing towns of western Indiana – really outer-lying reaches of the Chicago metropolitan area – are the headquarters of the Serbian diaspora in the US.

Kinda like Melbourne for Greeks, this grey and snowy corner of the Midwest contains the largest population of Serbs outside the Balkans. The small town of Merrillville for example has not one but two separate – and most likely factionally warring – Serbian Orthodox church communities despite having a population of just over 30,000.

Since I was cruising my rented, bright yellow Kia Rio – providing high visibility that any Mediterranean grandmother would approve of – at 10am on a Sunday morning, and since I had (negligently) not spent much time inside a church in this land of Christianity over the past months, I thought I would stop by and clock up some sorely needed spiritual brownie points.

The St Sava Cathedral stands tall from the well-mowed front lawns, its Byzantine domes proud alongside the respective flags and a ‘God Bless America’ sign adorning its front door.

The icons, frescoes, candles and strong waft of incense were all instantly familiar to someone who spent much of their childhood inside an Orthodox church.

But differences were visible too: the welcome introduction of Protestant-style pews – something I could only have dreamt of as a whingeing, whining, knee-buckling 8-year-old – as well as an English language sermon and a congregation not segregated by gender.

All three are modernisms not yet implemented Down Under, perhaps a reflection of America’s more fervent insistence on assimilation, or perhaps the fact that many second- and third-generation parishioners in the outwardly less religious Australia have stopped turning up to church, leaving these socio-cultural and theological decisions to more recent migrants.

After the service, as is the ritual, I lined up to receive a personal blessing and a small chunk of bread signifying communion. The bearded and heavily-accented priest knew his flock well:

“You not from here,” he accused in a typically Belgrade staccato, offering a kind and somewhat knowing grin.

When I explained myself, I was not only treated to a highly calorific lunch prepared by elderly ladies – the best kind – but a standing ovation from the congregation, welcoming the “very special guest all the way from Australia”.

While humbled, I must admit my concentration on the subsequent and no doubt enlightening dissertation about the ‘star of Bethlehem’ was thwarted by the hushed whispers of two craggy looking middle-aged men sipping firewater at the table behind me.

Being Serbs, it didn’t take long for their conversation to turn to politics.

“What do you think about these Syrian refugees?” the one with the scar asked the one with the gut. “I’m with Trump,” the portly Slav replied. “No more Muslims”.

Animosity between the Christians of the Balkans and their Islamic co-habitants is age-old and a can of worms far too hazardous to open here, but their lack of concern for the plight of the world’s newest displaced people is remarkable given the fate of their own parents less than half a century ago.

Just like the Armenians of Los Angeles, Cubans of Florida and Italians of Jersey, almost all of the former Yugoslav Americans present on the pews this Sunday were once asylum seekers or the direct descendants of displaced people graciously taken in by American domestic public policy. So too, the majority of White Americans who came earlier had escaped war in continental Europe or famine in Ireland and so on.

And yet, survey after survey suggests a majority of Americans is against accepting any more Syrian refugees, with President Obama resorting to unconstitutional executive orders to circumvent the will of the people.

To be fair, there are significant problems associated with this particular group of asylum seekers, hailing from a country where Jihadists occupy significant territory and where social views such as those relating to women’s rights are archaic at best.

The alleged sexual assault of women in Cologne, Germany on New Years Eve by freshly arrived Syrian refugees, as well as an attempted murder carried out by a Syrian “ISIS sympathiser” and recent arrival in full Muslim garb in Philadelphia last week, have only added fuel to the fire.

However, the majority of those fleeing are not enemies but clearly supporters of freedom and prosperity, else they would have stayed on in favour of one of the two evils that remain: an Iran- and Russia-backed maniacal regime or the bloodthirsty chaos of insurgent Islamism.

The notion that they should have stayed and fought against these two well-funded and barbarically violent forces is rich coming from anyone in Australia or America whose forebears escaped a similar scenario in search of a better life.

At a briefing at the US Capitol in DC I attended a few months back, a top brass General said he believed there is not a “single square mile of Syria that is safe”. Ponder that for a second and think about what you would do.

The hysteria about security is not completely unfounded. There does need to be a vetting process and, more importantly, those lucky ones that do get in need to respect the local laws and customs, not view women as having loose morals simply because they show their hair and wear bikinis.

Americans are entitled to make up their own minds about whom they permit into their country and whom they deny – and as a recent beneficiary of the US immigration system it would be ungracious to protest too much.

But those Syrians currently displaced that are truly committed to the tenets of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness may just add more to the national fabric than they subtract.

They might even place a ‘God Bless America’ sign  and welcome mat on the front stoop of their mosque, so that a prodigal son may one day visit to pay respect to homelands old and new.

merrillville 2

St Sava Cathedral, one of two Serbian Orthodox churches in Merrillville, IN.

Published on 16 January 2016