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Belonging Here

Strand, Michael. "Belonging Here." Salina Journal, 4 July 2006.


"Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all. This is just as true of the man who puts native before the hyphen as the man who puts German or Irish or English or French before the hyphen. Americanism is a matter of the spirit and of the soul."

--- President Teddy Roosevelt, in a 1915 speech

One of John Stavropoulos relatives e-mailed him a copy of that speech some time ago, and it reminded him of the way his own parents took to America after emigrating from Greece.

Stavropoulos father George came to the United States with his older brother when he was 17 and, they never were hyphenated Americans, he recalled. They never considered themselves Greek-Americans.

For some, however, making that transition is easier than for others and may depend more on the individual than anything else.

Gia Kvaratskhelia remembers the exact moment when he felt that America was now his home, rather than his native Georgia.

It was about three years after hed moved to Salina to be head coach of the Kanza Fencing Club, under the sponsorship of Civil War history buff and Salina doctor Boo Hodges.

One of Hodges projects was preservation of Kansas Civil War flags, and he was making a presentation of one for display at the state capital.

Kvaratskhelia, then not yet a U.S. citizen, was part of the ceremony, dressed in a Civil War soldiers uniform.

When they played the national anthem, I felt a shiver I felt like I belonged here, he said. At that moment, this country was as dear to me as home.

For most, however, change comes in steps, often spread over years.

When Janet Laubhan Flickingers ancestors came to America from the Volga region of Russia, They wanted to dissociate themselves from Russia, and were eager to make this their new home.

Maybe too eager.

Her grandfather was elected to serve on a local school board only to find out later that his father had fiddled around for years and never applied for American citizenship on behalf of his children.

His father hadnt applied like he thought he had, she said. Then his brother told him, and he was worried he was going to get in trouble.

The Republic survived.

That story is unusual, said Flickinger, a Salinan who has done extensive research documenting the genealogy of Volga immigrants.

Most, she said, got their American citizenship as soon as possible there was then a two-year waiting period.

They wanted to embrace this country but also to disassociate themselves from where they came from that was part of the citizenship paperwork renouncing any past allegiances.

Chris Venicx would already be an American citizen, except for that final step of renouncing his Belgian citizenship.

I would become an American citizen, but Belgium doesnt allow dual citizenship, he said.

So after 17 years in the United States, the manager of the Philips Lighting plant in Salina still has a green card; he and other Belgians working abroad are attempting to persuade their government to allow dual citizenship.

After that, without a doubt, Ill become an American.

Monika Harzman, who moved to her husband Brents family farm near Downs from Germany almost exactly a year ago, feels that same pull in two directions.

Im feeling kind of in-between, she said. I dont want to go back to Germany.

Her green card is good for 10 years of residency in the United States but, as with Belgium, Germany doesnt recognize dual citizenship and giving up her German citizenship is a step shes not yet ready to take.

Maybe in 10 years but not now, its too fresh, she said. For me, it would be like cutting a tie with my parents, but once theyre gone I dont have any brothers or sisters it would be easier.

Her two daughters, Carolina, 7, and Leonie, 3, will be raised as Americans, she said, even though they do have dual citizenship, having been born in Germany with an American father.

Kvaratskhelia did have to give up his Georgian citizenship when he officially became an American two years ago.

Was it a tough decision?

Yes and no, he replied. I obtained something millions of people around the world hope for their whole lives it was one of the most glorious days of my life.

Were still Hispanics

For Miguel Rosas, who came to the United States from Mexico more than 25 years ago when he was 12 and now owns the two Carmelitas Mexican grocery stores in Salina, distancing himself from his native country wasnt so easy.

Were still Hispanics, and your family is from Mexico, but I live in this nation now, he said, the conflict evident as he ponders out loud the question of which country he thinks of as home. But I feel Mexican, too. Its really hard to say. Ive been here a long time, and I feel like I belong here, but Ive still got family in Mexico.

In the end, he said, Its a hard question to answer.

But, he added with certainty, All my five kids were born here, and we have a life here and youre proud that your family is American.

Why you learn English

One of the most important steps to becoming an American either on paper or in spirit is learning English.

You have to learn the language to take advantage of the opportunities this country offers, said Paul S. Coakley, bishop of the Salina Catholic Diocese. Coakley spoke in May in Salina at a gathering of several hundred mostly Hispanics protesting proposed changes to federal immigration law.

Its rare that its the first generation that will learn the language, its usually the children who become fully assimilated.

Asked whether the church offering Spanish-language Mass and local newspapers printing Spanish-language editions hinders that assimilation process, Coakley urged a pragmatic approach that doesnt close any doors until English is mastered.

Its to their advantage to learn the language, but we have to be realistic, he said.

Its important for people to assimilate themselves, said Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan.

Moran also stresses the importance of language in that process. He objects to requirements for ballots and other official documents in languages other than English.

In my opinion, people can speak whatever language they want in their home, with their family, but no taxpayer should be asked to pay for that English needs to be the common denominator for public activity.

I never knew my father not to know English, Stavropoulos said. He mastered it early on and did not speak with an accent.

Of course, Stavropoulos acknowledged, his father might have had a easier time because he came to America as a teenager, while his mother, Katherine, came years later and had a much tougher transition.

My mother came over when she was an adult, so it was much more difficult for her. She always had a heavy accent and read slowly.

Stavropoulos, a Salina pharmacist, said he learned Greek before English, primarily from his mother.

But we only spoke it at home, never anywhere else, he said.

Katherine also taught her grandchildren to speak Greek.

The oldest knows it pretty well, the next one a little less, and so on they all know Greek, a bit and the two oldest can speak it pretty well.

Harzman is making a point of raising her two girls to be bilingual, even though she thinks theyll end up staying in America.

I only speak German to the girls, so they will learn German, she said. I want to keep the German language alive in them.

Her older daughter, Carolina, spent the first six of her seven years speaking mostly German but has made the transition well, Harzman said.

The 3-year-old, she understands everything I say, but she usually answers me in English maybe a whole sentence of English with one word of German, Harzman said. But thats fine with me, as long as she understands the language.

She refers to Leonies use of the mix of German and English as passive bilingualism, and said she thinks the German language is kind of sleeping inside her if she goes to Germany, I know she could speak it.

Kvaratskhelia makes a point of speaking to his 31/2 year-old daughter Maya only in Georgian, while his American wife, Dani Edson, speaks to her in English.

I want her to be bilingual, he explains, adding that shell usually reply in English unless she really wants to get his attention, when she shows her fluency in dads native tongue.

I want her to know her fathers heritage, so when we go back to visit, shell feel like she belongs, he said.

I really want her to be able to obtain dual citizenship, he said, a crazy idea about being connected to her fathers land.

Venicx, who speaks four languages, is adamant that learning the language is important.

This is probably a pretty strong statement, but I think its wrong to let people live here and not learn the language, he said. Not learning English is going to separate people, force them to live in their own world and not talk to others.

And that, he said, would weaken the country.

You have 150 nations living here, and the reason this country is so strong is we all talk together we all work together, Venicx said. If you tell people they can speak only Spanish or French, theyre going to stay apart and youll have 150 different countries here.

Preserving culture

Yet Venicx also thinks its important for his children a 19-year-old son and 21-year-old daughter who were born in Belgium to know their native country.

Weve sent them to Belgium for a month each year so they can use their language I want them to be able to speak the language and be aware of customs, he said.

Both of his children were younger than 5 when the family came to the United States, Venicx said, and to them, this is home.

I think for them, its what they remember from their childhood, he said. When I go back to Belgium, its like home. The things you see, the foods you smell, are what you grew up with. For my kids, America is what they grew up with.

They feel Belgian, he continued. But I doubt they will ever move to Belgium; this is their country they started saying the Pledge of Allegiance in kindergarten.

Rosas, too, encourages his children to retain the customs and traditions from Mexico.

Its not that we force them, he said. We talk to them about it, about our traditions, so theyll remember

Preserving customs also was important in the Stavropoulos family, John Stavropoulos said, but it was done with balance.

We observed all the American holidays, and there were also many church holidays in the Greek church, but we never neglected the American holidays, he said The Fourth of July was never neglected we celebrated being Americans ... we didnt celebrate Greek independence day.

And though he said the family practice could be summed up as When in Rome, you do as the Romans, the family still celebrated Easter according to the Orthodox churchs calendar often weeks away from their neighbors.

It might have been easier, Flickinger said, to focus on the future and the new country when immigrants knew that going back was nearly impossible.

There was no way of going back, Flickinger said. For most of them, they were so poor and the boat was so expensive it was a one-way trip.

Hop in the car?

But for the most recent wave of immigrants those from Mexico and Central America coming to the United States isnt a one-way trip.

Rosas, whose store has fliers advertising bus trips back to Mexico, says he goes home when its possible, for vacations, to visit our folks.

That proximity to Mexico one of the few old countries accessible by car might be one reason Hispanics seem to be holding onto their traditions, Rosas said.

Its easier to hold onto, because its so close, he said, adding that little things can matter. Like, for example, a piece of candy you were eating when you were a kid its easy to import that to the United States from Mexico, so you give it to your kids as something you ate when you were little. Then, when they grow up, they give it to their little ones and pass it on.

If youre from Russia, it would be harder to find those things, that kind of candy, so you find something else. All our traditions we can keep alive because we have access to them.

I think its harder for people from Mexico to leave behind all the traditions theres Mexican food everywhere, Rosas said.

In fact, salsa now outsells ketchup in the United States.

Rosas added, the large number of Hispanics in most communities makes it easier to hold onto traditions.

Coakley agreed that Mexicos proximity makes this latest wave of immigrants unique.

Theres not an ocean between us and Mexico, said Coakley, who as a priest for years in Wichita got to know many Hispanic families. It may slow assimilation.

The parents look back, go back to Mexico; for their kids, its not so big a deal; and for their kids, its not a big deal at all the pull becomes less and less with each generation, he said.

Coakley added, assimilation can work both ways.

Typically, he said, Hispanics have a strong sense of family and community that many in 21st-century North America have given up for faster-paced lives.

Thats something they can bring to us, something that enriches us, he said.

Earlier waves of immigrants, too, also often stayed together, resulting in the Poletowns, Greektowns and Chinatowns in many major cities.

Even in rural areas, communities tended to be settled by certain ethnic groups.

The Catholics, the Protestants and the Mennonites, they didnt mix a whole lot they settled next to people they already knew, Flickinger said.

Stavropoulos said that his father, however, made a point of not settling in a Greek neighborhood not that there was one in Salina.

They didnt seek out Greek communities some immigrants do seek out people they have something in common with, Stavropoulos said. I felt that some relatives never really wanted to let loose of the old country; its not that they didnt want to be Americans, it was just that the transition was a little harder.

My observation is that when people immerse themselves in the culture of their old country, its a tougher transition to make, he said.

Back in the USSR

Kvaratskhelia has seen that first-hand.

New York City has 300,000 immigrants from Russia, he said. I have friends who have lived there for years; they dont have to learn to speak English, they dont have to read English because there are Russian newspapers.

Even after years in this country, they have maybe 20 or 30 words of English, he said. They can live here for years without ever knowing what America is all about they still feel like theyre in Russia.

Kvaratskhelia has gone back to Georgia several times, to visit family and friends later this summer will be Mayas first trip there.

Even after 11 years in the United States, he said, Georgia still has a strong pull.

I could never regard Georgia as anything but home, he said. But now, its home Number Two; home Number One is Salina home is where family is, and I have family both places.

In contrast, Stavropoulos said, his father never had much desire to go back to Greece, even for a visit.

He never had any real desire to go back, but to see his parents when they were older, Stavropoulos said. Once he got that visiting done, that was it; he had no real desire to go back again. My mother was the same way she was very adamant we were financially able to send her to Greece, but she had no desire. That was another life.

Venicx has much the same feeling.

When I live here, I feel comfortable. And when I go back to Europe, I feel comfortable, he said, but not as comfortable. With friends, Ive changed and theyve changed; you live here for a long time and you build a life.

Hes also found Americans are more open than Europe, where theyre much more closed this is probably the easiest country in the world to be accepted.

Harzman has found that, too.

In Germany, a lot of people are grumpy I hate to say that, she said. I think the people here are more friendly.

For four years, she said, she and Brent lived in a town of 2,000 in Germany, and we didnt know anyone. I felt more like an outsider there than I do here. Its hard to say that about your own country, but thats what we experienced.

When it comes time to retire, Venicx said, he plans to stay in the United States.

As much as I love that country, I have it so much better here, he said. I think people dont appreciate this country enough; they say Europe is so much better. I want to say Stop! Stop! Think about what youre saying! Look at the freedoms you have here.

Many of my friends who stayed in Belgium havent gotten as far as I have, Venicx said. Its still the land of opportunity if youre willing to adapt, thats the key.

America is different for Kvaratskhelia, too.

Regardless of your ethnicity or religion, you are protected here, he said. I take great pride in that. A lot of people here take this for granted too much, and thats sad. If you work and strive you can do anything thats not true elsewhere in the world.

Reprinted with permission of the Salina Journal.

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