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Slaves In Egypt, Refugees In America: An Exodus Story In 8 Chapters

Amanda Morales hasn’t gone outside today. She didn’t go out yesterday or the day before, either. She is standing inside the Holyrood Episcopal Church in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, gazing out a window and waiting for her two eldest children to come home from school. Outside it’s cold and overcast, and the view isn’t much for her to look at — apartment buildings, dentists’ offices, a chunk of the George Washington Bridge. Still, it looks a lot brighter out there than it does here in this solemn Gothic Revival church that’s been on the corner of 179th Street and Fort Washington Avenue since 1914.

In 2004, when she was 17, Morales left her hometown in Dolores, Guatemala, traveled to Monterrey, Mexico, and crossed into Texas. She says that she came to America in part because of Guatemala’s high crime rate, and she was also afraid of the paramilitary group that had been trying unsuccessfully to recruit one of her brothers. She apparently didn’t understand that she could have applied for asylum when she moved to Long Island, where two of her siblings and the father of her children still live.

Though she remained in the United States illegally, Morales worked for a cello company and paid her taxes. Her three children — Dulce, 10; Daniela, 8, and David, 4 — were born in the States. Even so, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency issued a deportation order for Morales, instructing her to purchase a one-way ticket back to Guatemala. When she didn’t and instead arrived at Holyrood with her children in August 2017, she became a fugitive.

Morales, now 34, has been called the first immigrant in America to seek sanctuary in the Trump era. Save for a couple of short walks in the neighborhood for doctors’ and dentists’ appointments, accompanied by friends and volunteers, she hasn’t left the church since she took refuge there.

“Not being able to go out,” Morales says. “That’s the worst part.”


The Rabbi: Jeffrey Gale of Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation in Washington Heights. Image by Marisa Scheinfeld

Jeffrey Gale, the current rabbi of Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation, which is just a few minutes’ walk from Holyrood, is sitting in a pew in the mostly empty church. He came here today to visit with Morales, something he does regularly, and to invite her children to a Friday night family service at his synagogue. Right now, he’s waiting for the Rev. Luis Barrios, the charismatic, activist priest in charge of Holyrood, who opened the church to Morales and her children. Gale and Barrios will be heading to Riverside Church later today to meet with Ravi Ragbir, the Trinidad-born immigrant rights activist and executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition. Ragbir has been fighting his own order of deportation.

Gale tells me that Amanda Morales’s plight reminds him of the time he spent in the early 1980s in the former Soviet Union, meeting with Jewish dissidents, including one who’d been arrested for teaching Hebrew. “Two of the people I saw there wound up in the Gulag,” he says. “What’s the difference here? Yuri Andropov was premier there; what’s our excuse? Why does ICE have to act like the KGB?”

It’s a little past 3 p.m. The girls, Dulce and Daniela, have come back from school and Morales is walking with them down the nave of the church while pushing David in a stroller toward the makeshift apartment where they’ve been living. Gale glances over at them, then asks me if I’m familiar with a line from the Haggadah, the story of the Exodus from Egypt that is told at the Passover Seder: “In every generation, each person is obligated to see him or herself as though he or she personally came forth from Egypt.”

“Maimonides adds a keyword when he’s discussing this passage — he says that each of us must ‘conduct ourselves’ as if we came out of Egypt,” Gale tells me. “What he means is that this is our responsibility. We have to help people get out of their own personal Egypts, and this is her Egypt.”


The Synagogue: Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation in Washington Heights. Image by Marisa Scheinfeld

Washington Heights — a neighborhood in upper Manhattan located between the Harlem and Hudson rivers — was once a refuge for European immigrants, but it’s now a primarily Latino enclave. And, though Amanda Morales’s story may sound unique to our era, Morales is only the latest in a long line of refugees who have come here. In the 1930s and ’40s they came from Nazi-occupied Europe; after the end of the Vietnam War they came from Southeast Asia. Now, the neighborhood, which was once nicknamed “Frankfurt on the Hudson” because of its German refugee population, is known, in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, as “the Heights.” Two-thirds of its denizens are Latino, and services at Holyrood are conducted in both English and Spanish. In a hallway at Holyrood, a sign has been pinned to a corkboard: “No Mas Deportaciones!”

The long, twisty path that led me to this neighborhood and to Morales’s story begins about 75 Passovers ago — in particular, with a 1943 article about immigration that the Forward’s archivist, Chana Pollack, discovered.

In 1943 the Forward already had a long history of advocating for the rights of Jewish immigrants — in 1917, calling on President Wilson to overrule a bill aimed at curbing immigration; tallying the human costs of the limits placed on Jewish immigration in the early 1920s; reporting from Havana in 1926 about the thousands of Russian Jews forced to stay there when the United States adopted a new quota law.

The issue of the 1943 newspaper is dated April 23. America had been in World War II for about a year and a half — and the Forward was reporting news of Jews being massacred in Warsaw, Poland; Winston Churchill said that Nazis were planning gas attacks on Russia. But another story in that day’s paper catches my attention: “At a Seder for Refugee Children.”

This short, poignant article by Simon Weber that Pollack has translated into English from Yiddish tells of a Seder that was held at Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation, the same congregation that Jeffrey Gale now leads. The Seder was attended by about 100 child refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe. Some of the children had made their way to Washington Heights from England via the Kindertransport, in which unaccompanied Jewish minors fleeing the Nazis were granted admission to the country by the British government.

At A Seder For Refugee Children: The original April 23, 1943 article by Simon Weber. Image by The Forward Association

In a traditional Seder, a child asks the others at the table the “Four Questions” about the purpose of the ceremony; afterward, grownups provide the exceedingly long answer. But here in the Heights, the Exodus was told and acted out almost exclusively by children. And the parallels between their lives and those of the Haggadah’s exiled Jews seemed incredibly timely.

A boy named Max Frankel, age 13, recited the Kiddush — the blessing over the wine.

Frankel’s parents are Polish citizens, but he was born in Germany, where the family ran a store that had opened only a few weeks before Hitler became Germany’s chancellor. Max and his mother had secured passage to America via Holland, but Max’s father had been captured by the Russians. At the time of the Seder, as far as Frankel knew, his father was in Siberia.

“When Max stood up with the wine glass in his hand and started chanting in the traditional melody, one didn’t need to be religious to be transported,” Weber wrote. “He, too, had a past filled with migration and persecution. The role he acted in the Exodus story was not foreign to him.”

Werner Ulrich, age 12, asked the Four Questions. He, his parents and his elder brother, Ernest, left Munich in January 1939, two months after Kristallnacht, and headed to England; then they came to America in 1940. Ulrich’s father, Karl Justus Ulrich, who had been a judge in Germany, was now working as a shipping clerk, and his mother, Margarethe “Grete” Ulrich, worked at home as a seamstress.

“Werner is one of the lucky ones,” Weber wrote. “He was saved from Pharaoh with his parents and an older brother.”

Rabbi Max Greenwald dedicated the Seder to all the children still trapped in Hitler’s Europe. At this point, Alfred Berg, a slightly built, weary 12-year-old Kindertransport refugee who was living in Washington Heights with his aunt, uncle and younger brother, burst into tears.

“Where are your parents?” Weber asked the boy.

Berg said he didn’t know — the last he’d heard of his mother was that she was in Marseilles, France, and his father was in a concentration camp.

Weber asked how long Berg had been in America.

“One and a half years,” he said.

“I wondered where his parents were now,” Weber wrote. “Their mother is probably crying rivers of tears at not being able to be together with her beloved children… And their father, wherever he may be, is also probably choking out a tear that on the night Jews celebrate freedom from their slavery under Pharaoh, he is among millions of other Jews enslaved by a worse tyrant. Take comfort…. Your children are thinking about you and haven’t forgotten you in their moments of great joy. And not only your children, but also American Jews haven’t forgotten and won’t forget you.”

Seven and a half decades later, though, the details of this particular story have been more or less forgotten. Weber wondered about the fate of the parents, but as I read his story, I found myself wondering what happened to their children — to Werner Ulrich, who was “saved from Pharaoh” and brought to live at 1 Sickles Street; to Alfred Berg, who had already been separated from his parents for more than a year and a half; to Max Frankel, who displayed a flair for the theatrical as he recited the Kiddush. And what happened to Weber, who wrote the article?

Seventy-five years is a long time to wait before following up on a story. And yet, improbably, the stories of those refugee Seder children endure. Though the three boys interviewed for Weber’s story don’t remember the Seder itself, they still vividly recall the stories that took them there and the lives they made for themselves in America — in law, in engineering, in journalism. The lives those children wound up leading, and the lives of the refugees who followed them in the neighborhood where they grew up, attest to the way immigration has altered the fates and fortunes of families and to how those families have changed the country that adopted them. To paraphrase the Haggadah, what would have become of them if they hadn’t escaped their own personal Egypts? To paraphrase “In the Heights” — Who would they be if they’d never seen Manhattan?

And who would we have become without them?

I wanted to see if I could find out.


At His Desk: Simon Weber, who wrote “At A Seder For Refugee Children,” would go on to become the editor in chief of the Forverts. Image by Forward Association

Simon Weber, who wrote the 1943 Forverts article, had his own complicated immigration story. Weber, who died in 1987 at the age of 76, started out as a staff writer for the Forverts in 1939. He would go on to edit the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer and to serve as the Forward’s editor-in-chief from 1970 to 1987. He arrived in America in 1929.

“He himself was probably an illegal immigrant,” Weber’s daughter, Lillian Silver, told me. Silver, who has worked as the development director of the Metropolitan Opera and as executive vice president of the Park Avenue Armory, says that, early on, her father was an avowed socialist who used forged documents to get out of Poland; he worked in Argentina as a painter and a tailor until he had enough money to come to the States. “How he got to the U.S. was never totally clear,” Silver said. “It was a very difficult journey, but when he came to America, he became the most patriotic person you could imagine.” In America, Weber later became an ardent anti-Communist and provided testimony against the International Workers Order, but that’s another story.

In his 1943 article about the Seder, Weber wrote, “Listening to the tale of the Egyptian exodus from these children, it takes on an entirely new meaning. The ancient legend is renewed and feels as though it could have taken place only yesterday.”

“I think of how extraordinary it must have been for him to meet these children,” said Silver, who was 1 year old when her father wrote the article. “You get the sense that they didn’t understand how dire their situation was, and when you realize how many were orphaned, it’s terribly moving. When he writes about the children acting out the story of the Exodus, it reminds me of how he used to talk about the way his grandfather acted out these scenes. His grandfather was a famous folk poet in Poland, a badkhan, a humorous storyteller who would go from town to town. So, talking to these children must have evoked for him his own experiences as a child at Seders; he would have understood what it was like to not be at your own home with your own family traditions.”


Married Since 1959: Ursula and Werner Ulrich Image by Courtesy of Ursula and Werner Ulrich

“One thing about coming to America was a little complicated,” Werner Ulrich tells me. “Somehow I had developed a prejudice against the U.S.”

“My uncle’s family were very patriotic English people, and they tended to look down on the U.S. with no justification whatsoever,” he says. “But I did have that prejudice, and I was a little bit unsettled at first. At one point, my mother had to come in to talk to the teacher about my misbehavior, and the teacher was very kind. The only thing she picked on was the fact that I used British terms like ‘lorry’ instead of ‘truck.’ My mother asked me, ‘Why don’t you use the American terms?’ And as my mother sank into the ground, I said, ‘What’s good for England should be good enough for America!’ But that was just me acclimating to the transition. For the first three months, I lived with my uncle’s family and my parents. Ernest, my brother, lived in somewhat squalid quarters, separately. But in June we moved in together as a family, and after three to six months I would say I was fully acclimated.”

Ulrich, a retired engineer and patent attorney, now lives in the suburbs of Chicago with his wife, Ursula Ulrich, a retired librarian. They were married in 1959. Born in Leipzig, Germany, Ursula left with her parents for England in June 1939 and came to America in October 1940. Many of her relatives stayed behind and died in the Holocaust.

“There is no grave for my father’s mother,” she says. “She was killed by the Nazis and she ended up in a mass grave.”

I had managed to track down the Ulrichs with the help of a phone call to their daughter, a reference librarian. “We have five grandchildren,” says Ursula Ulrich, who got a degree in English from the University of Chicago. “And all of us were not supposed to have children or grandchildren, according to Hitler.”

“We did not have close relations with any of our neighbors, but it was a generally very friendly neighborhood,” Werner Ulrich says of the time he lived with his brother and parents in Washington Heights. “It had a lot of parks, and I could walk to school if I wanted to save the nickel for the bus, which I frequently did.”

Recalling his family’s arrival in America, Ulrich says his father made the transition from being a judge to working as a shipping clerk surprisingly smoothly.

“He tried to make the best of it. He would try to learn about the places where the company he was working for was shipping things,” Ulrich said. “If someone was shipping something to North Dakota, he would try to find it on a map.” Karl Justus Ulrich later became a German teacher at Columbia Grammar School in New York.

Werner Ulrich studied at Columbia University and got a doctorate in engineering science there. In 1966 and 1967, he taught at the University of California, Berkeley, where a speech Martin Luther King Jr. gave on campus made a strong impression: “King had been criticized for deviating from civil rights to concentrate on his anti-Vietnam posture, and he said, ‘Sometimes, you have to do something not because it’s popular, not because it’s expedient, but you do it because it’s right.’ And of course, he was right.”

Ulrich had been working at Bell Laboratories and was transferred to work in Bell’s Chicago area offices, where he developed telephone central office equipment. He was promoted to management, made his way to the patent department and, after he turned 50, went back to school to get a law degree from Loyola University.

What’s most interesting about the Ulrichs is not just their personal stories, but also the way those stories expand to encompass other stories, the way one immigrant’s story becomes an entire history of immigration. Ulrich’s late brother, Ernest, worked in the import-export business and, after he retired, volunteered for Human Rights Watch; he helped to start HRW’s German branch in Berlin. Ursula Ulrich’s sister, Susan Wolff, worked as a schoolteacher in New York and Virginia, where she became one of the first teachers to use computers in the classroom. She is politically active and recently organized a group of 100 or so to attend a speech given by Gold Star father Khizr Khan, who became involved in a highly publicized dispute with Donald Trump during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

“And just plain wrong — the bigotry,” Ursula Ulrich adds. “We’re all obsessed about what happened to the Jews and so we tend to be very welcoming to immigrants, and we find the anti-Muslim prejudice appalling. And those young people who were brought here — the DACA people — we just hope it’s going to work out for them.”


A Retired Civil Engineer: Alfred Berg, who worked for the MTA, at his home in Rockland County, New York. Image by Marisa Scheinfeld

The George Washington Bus Terminal, which Amanda Morales can see from the front of Holyrood Church, has been there since the early 1960s. Alfred Berg can still remember the apartment buildings that used to be there before they were leveled to make way for the bus station. He’d pass them on his way to play handball or chess in Fort Washington Park.

In 1943, when he attended the Seder at Hebrew Tabernacle, where his uncle and aunt were members, Berg still held out some hope that he would see his parents again.

He never did.

The last memories he has of his parents is of them waving to him behind the fence of an internment camp as he was sent off to a children’s home in France. Since he was 8 he has kept an album filled with photos and the letters that his parents sent him.

“They were murdered in Auschwitz,” Berg tells me from his home in Rockland County, New York, where he lives with his wife. “I had pretty much assumed that’s what happened when we lost contact with them, but I didn’t learn the truth until a number of years after the war. In those days, mail was censored and you couldn’t get much information. We knew they were in an internment camp, but then we lost contact. Ultimately, what we found out, after a lot of digging in records from Yad Vashem, is that they were shipped by cattle cars to Auschwitz. I’ve tried for years to find out exactly what took place, but all I know is they were probably put in a gas chamber a few days after they got there.”

Memories: Alfred Berg still has the letters and postcards that his parents sent him when he was in France and they were in a detention camp. Image by Marisa Scheinfeld

Berg, 87, got his degree in engineering from Newark College of Engineering. He served in the army during the Korean War, and after his service he found work as a civil engineer. He spent most of his career with New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority. He and his wife have two adult daughters.

“I’ve had a normal, American life,” Berg says. “I came here as an immigrant kid, and that’s what this country is composed of. It’s composed of immigrants, and it’s been that way for generations. When I was growing up, I felt like a normal American kid because that’s what I was.”


Refugee In Washington Heights: The immigrant identification card of Max Frankel who would go on to become the executive editor of The New York Times. Image by Courtesy of Max Frankel

“As my mother said,” Max Frankel tells me, “’anybody who got out has a story.”

There are about a dozen Max Frankels living in New York. But shortly after I send an email to the first one on my list, to the Max Frankel who was executive editor of The New York Times, to the Max Frankel whose picture could at one time be found on the side of Times’ delivery trucks, he emails back to tell me I found the right one.

Frankel, now 87, is retired and lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Though he doesn’t recall the refugee Seder, he still remembers Hebrew Tabernacle, where he conducted services as a kid and where he played the lead in a show called “Best Foot Forward,” which featured the hit song “Buckle Down, Winsocki.” (The musical was later turned into a 1943 movie starring Lucille Ball.)

“That’s where I was bar mitzvahed,” Frankel says. “I had a great singing voice, and I was a great ham.”

“There was very little traffic,” Frankel says of his old neighborhood. “We played ‘curb ball’ on the corners. You’d bounce the ball off the corner curb, and the other three corners would be the other bases.”

He describes Washington Heights as “heavily Jewish.” “It was made up of German refugees with whom I did not directly associate at the time because we regarded ourselves as Eastern European and they looked down on us,” he says. “We were at the southern end of the neighborhood, and when you crossed Broadway, you got into a Puerto Rican neighborhood briefly, and there was the Irish neighborhood where you might get the hell beaten out of you, and when you got to St. Nicholas, there was a fairly elite black population, and then you got to Coogan’s Bluff, overlooking the Polo Grounds, where we would climb up on the rocks and watch a bit of a ballgame.”

If you’re looking for an all-American tale of immigrant success, you’d be hard-pressed to find a story better than Frankel’s. His father, who made his way out of Siberia and eventually arrived in America on Columbus Day 1946, opened a store called “Frankel’s” at the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 145th Street. Meanwhile, Max Frankel went into journalism.

“My mythology aptly suited America, which inspires the ambition to command even as it rewards efforts to conform,” Frankel wrote in “The Times of My Life and My Life With the Times,” the 1999 memoir about his remarkable career, which was published more than 50 years after he recited the Kiddush at Hebrew Tabernacle.

Frankel spent half a century with The New York Times, starting out as a $20-a-week reporter covering campus news while still attending college at Columbia. In the army he worked as a correspondent for Stars and Stripes, and after he got out he began work as a full-time reporter for the Times in 1952. He served as a Moscow correspondent in the 1950s, a Washington correspondent in the ’60s and White House correspondent during the Johnson administration; as head of the Washington bureau, he was instrumental in the Times’s decision to publish the so-called “Pentagon Papers” in 1971. In 1973 he won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Richard Nixon’s trip to China, then went on to serve as the Times’s executive editor. If you Google “Max Frankel” and “Gerald Ford,” you’ll find the most memorable moment of the 1976 presidential debates between Ford and Jimmy Carter, in which an incredulous Frankel asks a flummoxed Ford to explain his assertion that there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.”

At The 1976 Presidential Debates: New York Times’ executive editor Max Frankel is surprised to learn that President Gerald Ford believes there is no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. Image by YouTube

“When we lived in Washington Heights, my stop was 157th. When I went to Music and Art High School, it was 137th. When I went to Columbia, my stop was 116th, and when I worked for the Times, my stop was 42nd. We had a big house in Riverdale, then my wife and I moved back to the city,” Frankel says. “I’ve spent my whole life on the Number 1 train.”

In 2001, not long after he’d stopped writing a media column for the Times, Frankel wrote an essay for the paper’s 150th anniversary. It was nearly 60 years after he’d come to America, and yet, his own story and how it related to those of other besieged communities were still fresh in his mind. “Turning Away From the Holocaust” addressed how the Times had buried the story of Nazi genocide as it was happening, and discussed the implications of that oversight.

“To this day the failure of America’s media to fasten upon Hitler’s mad atrocities stirs the conscience of succeeding generations of reporters and editors,” he wrote. “It has made them acutely alert to ethnic barbarities in far-off places like Uganda, Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo. It leaves them obviously resolved that in the face of genocide, journalism shall not have failed in vain.”

“My family were refugees,” Frankel tells me. “We had a hell of a time getting our visa because of the policy of the government to keep people out. The story of immigration to the United States has haunted me all my life.”


The Nguyen Family: From Left: Lam Hoang, Kimberly, Be Van and Van. Image by Courtesy of Lam Nguyen

The story of the refugee Seder and how the kids who attended it succeeded in America could end there. But it doesn’t — because the tale of immigrants coming to Hebrew Tabernacle and transforming themselves and their country persisted and still persists. The faces are different; their stories are familiar.

Thirty-five Passovers later, it’s the late 1970s. The Vietnam War is over, and South Vietnamese refugees have been fleeing their country’s Communist regime in massive numbers. Hundreds of thousands of the so-called “boat people” are heading for the South China Sea, taking crowded and rickety fishing vessels to Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong and elsewhere.

Over the course of nearly two decades, an estimated 2 million boat people escaped Vietnam, and hundreds of thousands of them died at sea. Between 1978 and 1997, about 400,000 were resettled in America.

“It was a horrible story,” Lam Hoang Nguyen says. He was 14 when his father, Be Van Nguyen, who had escaped the country after being released from a North Vietnamese concentration, or “re-education,” camp, captained a 12-foot-boat packed with 52 people, intending to sail to Indonesia. “It had already taken two days, and then, before we got there, we were caught by sea pirates,” he says. “It was very bad. They tied my father up, and I was the last kid taken off the boat by the pirates. They went to search the boat for money, and then they released my father and let us go to Indonesia. We were lucky. From what I heard, the next boats they captured, they beat people up and raped women, but that didn’t happen to us.”

At the time, Simon Weber was the Forward’s editor-in-chief, and he likened the boat people’s predicament to that of Jews in Nazi Germany. “Engraved deep within the memory of every Jew is the sad chapter in civilization’s history, when Nazi Germany attempted to carry out their program of genocide,” Weber wrote on July 15, 1979. He urged the Jewish community to rally at the United Nations to help “save the ‘boat people.’”

On February 1, 1980, Robert Lehman, then the rabbi of Hebrew Tabernacle, stood before his congregation to deliver a sermon, explaining why his congregation would be sponsoring a family of boat people. The speech can be found, along with many of his other sermons, in Lehman’s papers at the Center for Jewish History, in New York.

“I recall faintly my feeling when I stepped off a boat in 1938,” said Lehman, who came to America from Germany at the age of 11 and served as rabbi of Hebrew Tabernacle from 1965 to 1997. “They are refugees from persecution much as we were 40 years ago.

“There is a question that is asked by some. Is this a Jewish issue, or what is Jewish about it at all? Personally, I have no sympathy for those who ask these types of questions. Of course it is a Jewish matter, as it is the need of any and all who stand forsaken and alone…. We accused the world of not coming to our aid when we needed it during the Holocaust. Now, we have a chance to show the world and we must not be found wanting.”

“My father was a refugee,” says Robert Lehman’s daughter, Sharon Lehman, who is now a social worker who works with foster children. “He came over from Germany. He was a Holocaust survivor. The congregation was made up of a lot of Holocaust survivors, so it was typical of them to want to help someone in need.”

The congregation sponsored Be Van Nguyen, who had served as an officer with the South Vietnamese navy, and his son Lam; the rest of the family — Nguyen’s wife and his five other children — stayed behind. When Nguyen and his son made enough money, they would bring everyone else over to America. Hebrew Tabernacle found the Nguyens an apartment and donated money and basic household items — salt and pepper shakers, dishes, flatware, bedding, rice bowls and chopsticks.

“We helped them settle in,” says Arlene Haas, who remembers assisting the Nguyens when she was a student at Barnard College; she is now an environmental lawyer in the Chicago area and has done pro bono asylum work and has worked with Tibetan refugees. “I remember having them over for dinner, and my mom cooked instant rice, and the father explained to her politely that the rice was too soggy. I remember showing them the grocery store and how things worked there. We went over to their apartment, and I remember my mother showing them that, in America, we keep bananas outside of the refrigerator.”

One of the members of Hebrew Tabernacle helped find Be Van Nguyen a job as a repairperson for a cuckoo clock company in Manhattan; Lam attended George Washington High School.

In 2018, the Nguyens were tough to track down — theirs is an incredibly common Vietnamese surname. And, though, as it turns out, Lam Nguyen has told his story once before — to the author Janet Bode for her book “New Kids on the Block: Oral Histories of Immigrant Teens” — he did so using a pseudonym. I found him via a post on a Facebook page that led to a Vietnamese real estate agent who put me in touch with him.

“Oh, my God, I didn’t know any English; the only English word I knew was Coca-Cola,” Lam Nguyen tells me. “I didn’t have many winter clothes. I had a light jacket and shoes, and some kids made fun of me, but I kept thinking positive and I did my work because we had to support my mom and my sisters and my brothers. So many things had happened to us: We had everything and we ended up having nothing and so we had to start our new life here all over again. I feel up to this day that I really missed my childhood, because the childhood I have in my memory really wasn’t that great.”

When the cuckoo clock company moved to Rhode Island, Be Van Nguyen and his son moved, too. Over the years, Lam Nguyen found work at Burger King, in a laundromat, at a campus employment office and at a bank. Most recently, he sold Toyotas.

In 1990 the entire Nguyen family finally reunited in Rhode Island, where many of them still live. There are children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Be Van Nguyen retired about 10 years ago.

“Some of them have just finished school, some of them are engineers, some are in medicine, and some work in computers and IT,” Lam Nguyen says. “My father and I worked very hard and we sacrificed everything for our family so the next generation could have a better life. If we would’ve died at sea, none of this would have happened. So, whenever holidays come or Thanksgiving comes, we thank God for everything. And we always thank the rabbi and his temple — they were there with us from the very beginning. They’re always in our hearts and we will never forget them.”


Makeshift Home: Amanda Morales has been living in Holyrood Episcopal Church in Washington Heights since August, 2017. Image by Marisa Scheinfeld

It’s nearing dinnertime in Holyrood Church. Outside, the sun’s nearly down — though it was pretty dark in here before, it’s darker now. Amanda Morales is sitting on a red plastic chair in the front room. In the cluttered room behind her, her three children are sprawled on the floor and the bunk beds. Books have been taken off shelves to make room for toiletries, stacks of clothes and a TV with a DVD player. Household items are stuffed in plastic storage bins. There’s no stove or kitchen to speak of, but for now, this will have to do. While she waits for word on the appeal of her deportation order, Morales will stay here. Welcome to the world of refugees in America, circa 2018.

“We know we are breaking the law,” says Father Luis Barrios, Holyrood’s priest. who, by his own count, has been arrested 65 times for civil disobedience. “But we have a moral obligation to break the law. Remember: Everything Hitler did was legal.”

Priest In Charge: Father Luis Barrios of Holyrood Episcopal. Image by Marisa Scheinfeld

At the beginning of the Morales’s time here, the two older children had trouble adjusting — the eldest daughter, Dulce, came home from school crying on the first day, fearing other kids would find out she was living in a church. But now, Morales tells me through a translator, they have become more accustomed to their surroundings.

At least she isn’t afraid as she used to be; for now, she feels safe inside this church. Although arrests for violations of immigration laws have gone up by 30% during Donald Trump’s presidency and Morales says that she’s felt the changes that have taken place in the country since Trump took office, she thinks ICE is unlikely to arrest her here. (“If they do,” Barrios tells me, “the shit will really hit the fan.”)

Morales says the hardest part of her ordeal is the claustrophobia, the stress and the maddening boredom, the days spent watching the news and soap operas, or minding her son as she waits for her daughters to come home.

From the back room, there are the sounds of chattering and giggling. And, as Morales’s three children laugh and play, I’m thinking again of those three other children who came to Washington Heights 75 Passovers ago and, through the help of this community, reinvented themselves as Americans. I’m wondering if these children will get the same chance.

Even so, Morales says that she still thinks of this country as the land of opportunity.

“It’s a place where people come to find a better life,” she says. “When I came here, I knew what the risks were. But there are a lot of risks in every country in the world.”

I ask her what the first thing is that she’ll do once she gets out of here. She gives a half-smile and looks past me and out the door.

“Take a walk,” she says. “Somewhere. Anywhere.”

Adam Langer is the editor of the Forward magazine. Contact him at [email protected]

Additional research and translation by Chana Pollack


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