On Emigrating in the 21st Century

Me, my first week in Dubai — August 2018

At the turn of the 20th century, a young Polish woman got on a boat bound for America. She was a land-owner’s daughter, likely accustomed to some amount of privilege, and even possibly to an ancient title of minor nobility. Yet she left it all behind to join her sister—who was already settled in a far-off place called Ohio.

The reason? An intolerable home situation. Her mother had passed away, and when her father remarried, he chose a woman not much older than his younger daughter. The two women, it turns out, didn’t get along so well.

I think I’d get a boat for the same reason. Probably more so because I’m related to that young Polish woman—as her great-great granddaughter.

Fast-forward one hundred years, and I got on a plane in Chicago this past August with the same intention my ancestor had when she said goodbye to her native land. Except that instead of going to the “land of promise,” as America was then known, I flew east, past Great-Great Grandma’s native land to a place that, back when she lived, hadn’t even yet met Lawrence of Arabia.

I doubt Great-Great Grandma ever thought much about Arabia, except perhaps to see an old lithograph or two in a Polish geography book in school. But here I am, also an emigre, just for different reasons.

Perhaps some things really do “run in the family.”

I should probably clarify at this point that no one really immigrates to the United Arab Emirates. You come here to work. Or you come with someone who’s been hired to work. And when you don’t work anymore—or your sponsor doesn’t—you leave. Period. This country doesn’t give permanent residence visas, unless you’re a property investor or a retiree with more than $300,000 US in the bank that you strictly don’t touch.

Still, every day, this dusty jungle of sand and steel welcomes the world’s misfits, from West and East alike, with open arms. And we embrace this once-forgotten, now-flourishing desert as our own, for as long as the strength of our hands and the economy will allow. Or in my case, as long as God chooses to keep me here.

I’ve thought a lot about Great-Great Grandma since I arrived here. I honestly don’t know her name, other than that her last name was (oddly enough) “Organic.” Probably a butchering of some beautiful Polish name an Ellis Island officer couldn’t spell, yo. But I now understand with much more empathy how much courage she must have had, and the dreams she must have entertained coming to the U.S.

My mother has a few memories of her great-grandmother, caring for my mom when she (mom) was very very young, at her Ohio home. Great-great Grandma married and built a life for herself in the U.S., yes. But she never learned much English. To this day, occasionally my mom uses a Polish word (like “yaitsa” for “egg”) which she learned at Great-Great Grandma’s house.

I, by contrast, landed in a country that favors Arabic as a political policy, but where in practice English is the national language. I could talk to almost anyone upon arrival. (Of course, understanding their accents has been another exercise in itself.)

Like Great-Great Grandma, however, I rub shoulders every day with people who came from vastly different places than me. And we’re all here for one reason only:

Opportunity.

(Or for some of us oddballs, the call of God. But that’s another story for another day.)

It’s a strange day in the world when a girl with an American passport leaves home to seek opportunities elsewhere. I’m sure Great-Great Grandma never thought she’d see such a day come when America was not the only real center of opportunity. For many it still is, but for me, in God’s good plan for my life, it was a worn-out door swinging shut on rusty hinges.

I don’t regret coming to the United Arab Emirates at all. The pace of life in Dubai is insane—let’s just get that out there—but it’s also an amazing place. I’ve made incredible friends from all over the world, traveled easily to places that take forever to reach from America, and been blessed with a new measure of financial stability after several years of relying solely, like Elijah, on the ravens of God for food.

But I still can’t help feeling a pang of homesickness every now and then. The people, the places, the food. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with a vivid vision of some place in Milwaukee—the verdant slopes of South Shore Park, for example, on the beach of Lake Michigan—that I deeply love. The last summer I spent in Milwaukee was a glorious finale to ten years of loving that place very deeply and experiencing the very best of it.

Then, one day it was gone. I took off on a plane and, three planes later, got off in Ellis Island, which for me was the glittering marble and chrome of Dubai International Airport, where I was suddenly in line behind Indian women in colorful kurtas and Arab women, their whole bodies covered in black.

Life is strange, isn’t it?

Perhaps wanderlust is just in the family genes. Or perhaps God really does allow us to play out experiences of our ancestors, all over again, redeeming them for His purposes. I don’t know anything about my great-great grandmother’s spiritual life or beliefs. I don’t know if there were any other God-fearing prophetic women in my lineage.

But out of their experiences, God birthed me. And though I traveled here for Him—and not as an escape for an intolerable home situation—I still send love and respect to the memory of Great-Great Grandma.

Her courage was an example for me, long before I knew I’d even need that same courage myself.

Turn of the 20th century. Turn of the 21st …

The cycles of life continue.

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