BATH — In the last years of the 19th century, my Finnish grandmother, Sophia Wesiluoma, said goodbye to her mother in Yliharma, Finland, to come to America with her aunt Brida Johnson. Sophie was 12 years old. She never saw her mother or father or family again. She might as well have gone to Mars.

She died on March 3, 1972, having married at age 17 and borne five children with her Finnish husband, Hjalmar, to whom she remained married all of her life. She never returned to Finland. The Finnish relatives never came here.

Our country is largely populated by people – or their descendants – who were willing to say goodbye to those they loved, knowing they would probably never see them again, abandoning not only those who gave them a sense of belonging, but also the places that gave them a sense of place. I’ve often wondered if the departure of my Finnish grandfather, Hjalmar Liematainen, was precipitated by a big blow-out adolescent argument with his father, Hjalmar storming off the farm in Karstula, scraping money together to buy portage on the American Line steamship Arcturus on April 26, 1902.

He paid 195 Finnish marks to board in Hanko, traveling to New York, then Boston. His profession was listed as “farmer’s son.” He was 19. He died on April 24, 1966, never having returned to Finland.

Anyone who has ever looked into their genealogy knows it’s very difficult to find out which loved ones were left behind. Maybe I should say “anybody who hasn’t looked into their genealogy,” because millions have – searching for that sense of belonging and sense of place that are taken away by estrangement, uprooted lives, divorce and the seduction of chasing – literally – the American dream.

Finding who was left behind is often arduously difficult because in this flag-waving, Pledge of Allegiance-making country, our ancestry is often made up of people who were willing to say goodbye, knowing they’d very likely never see the people they loved again. But knowing who and where you once belonged remains part of our emotional wiring.

In American history, not leaving those you love was a privilege. Saying goodbye to those you might never see again was an act of faith that the adventure, the dream was worth the price in personal courage. The roots of the American spirit we glorify at this time of year rest among many of us, in someone else’s courage to leave. Acknowledging it is as honorable a patriotic tribute as any we might make.

Leaving behind those you love in the quest for freedom is no mere sentimental 19th-century artifact that 20th-century divorce and transience make obsolete. I am a volunteer for the Asylum Network of Physicians for Human Rights. I document the narratives of people who have left their homelands behind to seek asylum here because of a well-founded fear of imprisonment and harm, if not death, if they return. To a person, they have left people who loved them and those they love in reaching out for the rung of freedom this democracy affords.

Sophie and Hjalmar waited on letters that took months to arrive – if ever; today’s asylum seekers may speak – even see each other’s faces – daily, but they are not in each other’s lives anymore. Sometimes, communication is impossible because the threat of government surveillance and serious retribution toward relatives left behind is real.

Oppressive regimes have special contempt for those willing to take on the pain of leaving behind the people and places that feed their sense of belonging, their sense of place. If an oppressive regime cannot punish the person whom they have identified as a threat, they will, unconscionably, punish, persecute, imprison or kill that person’s husband, parents, brothers or sisters. In the eyes of oppressive regimes, one person’s escape to freedom justifies torment and harassment of those dear to that person who have been left behind.

Every new asylum seeker’s story taxes my disbelief that persecution and human rights violations like these still take place in this world. But they do. And people are still willing to say goodbye – sometimes forever – to those they love deeply because of government persecution, the longing for some better freedom.

Hjalmar did that, on April 26, 1902. He found love, a new sense of belonging, a new sense of place and freedom. And that, I tell asylum seekers, is all still here.

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