Many years ago I got to know an old Russian man. He was born to a wealthy family that owned factories and large tracts of good land. His parents sensed the coming Bolshevik Revolution and sold all their Russian property and assets and moved to the land of opportunity and freedom. Shanghai. They did very well in China for a number of years, but they failed to see the Japanese and Communist threats in time to preserve their wealth. They lost everything to war and revolution and fled to Brazil with whatever they could fit in a few bags. They slowly rebuilt their lives at a much lower level in South America. As an adult he moved to California where he eventually died as a modest but content pensioner.
As a scholarship student in the U.K. in the early 1990’s I got to know a young Indian woman who had grown up in Leicester. She had been born in Uganda, but in 1972 her family was expelled at gunpoint by the Ugandan government when President Idi Amin declared all South Asians to be parasites and enemies of the Ugandan people.
Indians comprised 1% of Uganda’s population at the time, but held 20% of the nation’s wealth. Conveniently, Amin’s cronies seized all the property and liquid assets of the Indians as they were escorted out of the country.
The Indians who arrived in the U.K. (and Canada) as penniless refugees were not universally welcomed by the locals. But forty odd years later Leicester is thriving due in large part to the infusion of dynamic immigrants like the South Asian Ugandans. Meanwhile, Uganda is no better off for having expelled many of its most educated and productive citizens.
Back in New Jersey I befriended a woman who worked at a food truck selling shawarma and falafel. She and her family had been rich in Lebanon, but the civil war had stripped them of everything. They fled to live with cousins in America and were put to work selling stuffed grape leaves and tabouli to college kids late at night.
When I was a teenager in the 1980’s I worked as a housekeeper and gardener for an old Jewish couple. Belle and Sam. I loved them. Belle would talk about how they had escaped Poland just in time. They were smuggled out of Europe via Turkey and made their way to New York in the bowels of a steamer ship. They were good people, she insisted, and God had shined on them. Belle would leave the room and Sam would shake his head. “It wasn’t like that. The best people didn’t make it. The people who survived did terrible things. Horrible things. We had to.” He never elaborated on the details. And I never asked.
My father-in-law’s mother died last week. She was just shy of her 98th birthday. She was born in San Francisco in 1919, was a child through the Roaring Twenties, struggled through the Great Depression as a teenager, and married and started a family just as World War II was about to hit. She and her family found themselves in an internment camp in the desert shortly after Pearl Harbor was attacked. All Japanese – citizens or not – were distrusted and sent away for the duration of the war. The family home, business, and bank accounts were seized and never returned. At the end of the war they were quietly released to a country that didn’t particularly like them and the family started life again from scratch.
There are lessons here to be learned. Pay attention to what’s happening around you. Keep your options open. Be flexible. Be ready to take action when needed. And hope that you’re lucky.