Descendants of the Intrepid, a Contextual Look at Immigration

Weeks removed from joining students and educators on a study abroad experience to Berlin, Dr. Matt Nehmer, Executive Director of The Santa Barbara & Ventura Colleges of Law, offers a personal and historical perspective on immigration and its march across our ancestry.

“If we dig deep into our history and our doctrine, we will remember we are not descended from fearful men.”

Gender anachronisms aside, Edward R. Murrow’s statement still resonates. Drawing on the legendary journalist’s talent for shaking the truth from obstruction and nuance, Murrow offers, with cool confidence, a mantra that is a reminder and a guide—a reminder for how we got this far and a guide for navigating what comes next.

To look into our personal histories is to find stories of those who faced fear and the unknown. They traded their ancestral homes for the unfamiliar, their family systems and insider status for that of a stranger, a foreigner, an alien, or even harsher labels. Some of us know these people well. We trace our customs and identities to theirs. They are the heroes of our family sagas. For others, myself included, their narratives have long faded. They are an abstraction, a series of names that connect to other names, and up the trunk of the family tree until you find your name.

The dreams and desires of these people is not something we often think about without prodding. We have other things to concern our minds than the exploits of those long in the ground, regardless of their connection to us. They lived their lives, hopefully well, and we’re living ours, also hopefully well. People come, people go, the march of time carries on.

Turning the abstract into the understandable

And yet, as Murrow observes, there is comfort and strength to be discovered in their stories. I was reminded of this recently while participating in an international study program in Germany, the country of my surname and family lineage. Part of the “Education Beyond Borders” initiative led by TCS Education System (a nonprofit system of community-focused colleges of which the Colleges of Law is an affiliate), the course, “Immigration in Contexts: Examination of Germany,” explored today’s immigration issue through the disciplines of law, psychology, education, and health.

The program accomplished what education does best—it turned the abstract into the understandable. It freed us from experiencing the personal and sociological challenges of mass immigration solely through the cool medium of news outlets. For this we traveled to a European epicenter of the refugee crisis beget by the Syrian civil war and other global conflicts. We went to Berlin, the capital city most associated with Chancellor Merkel’s campaign to open Germany to those seeking refuge, assistance, and for some, asylum.
While there we met people on the vanguard of this issue: the policy makers; those running the schools coping with a surge in international enrollments; the scholars studying the effects of immigration; the political commentators and provocateurs; the community leaders who opened new doors for refugees.

And we met the immigrants themselves. We joined them on tours of their adopted neighborhoods. We heard harrowing accounts of how they got out, how they got to where they are, and the heartbreaking tales of those they left behind. We visited temporary shelters where faculty and students across TCS schools engaged in an exercise with residents called Photovoice. The methodology offered participants the opportunity to capture and communicate their story through image. Every Photovoice project was unique, a personal, primary source reflection of the plight of those who faced fear and took action.

Bringing these lessons home

Those who engaged in this experience—our students, faculty, trustees, and administrators—are now home. We’ve returned to our, relatively speaking, stable and secure lives—thanks in large measure to living in America and having the means to travel abroad. But we didn’t come back the same people as we left.

We brought with us the stories of those whose space we shared. Thanks to them we have perspective, a reminder of the constant upheaval of humanity and our place in this process: from being a contributor to its cause to a mere observer to among its actors. To look back on the bloodline of our ancestry is to see a personal link to those who navigate this journey today, and the challenges they face, including foreign languages, customs, skills, religions, and races. We saw this story continue to play out in Berlin. Many of the people we met will one day be the hero of their own family’s epic adventure passed from generation to generation. Others will live out their lives and, without a conscious effort to share what they did with others, fade from memory, thus leaving behind only a name.

Regardless of the fate of their legacy, and ours, we all have one thing in common no matter where we come from or where we go: to paraphrase Murrow, to look deep into the annals of our personal history is to see that we are descendants of the intrepid. The people we met in Berlin are living reminders of this truth.

My thanks and highest commendations to the people across TCS who conceived, created, and advanced the Education Beyond Borders program in Germany. It was an extraordinary experience. Their work will live on in the hearts and minds of all those touched by the project.