by Rose-Anne Clermont
– Germany –
They leave holding only their children’s small hands in their own. A crumpled photo of a relative might find its place among their few possessions. Most often it is nothing more than a prospect—of safety, peace, or a new chance at life—that accompanies millions of people who flee their homes.
What they encounter when they reach The Promised Land, or the next best thing, is often rejection, further abuse, deportation, uncertainty, or perhaps illness and hunger, which they can not explain to their children.
Kenyans, Sudanese, Haitians, Mexicans—these are the only identifications given to them in headlines. Their birth names, which we often never hear, belong to them as rightly as their homes.
Two women we have now come to know by name, Barbara and Renée, were lucky. Barbara didn’t squeeze herself into the back of a VW Bug to get across the East German border. Renée did not cling for her life on a shabby boat in shark infested waters to get to America. They did, however, leave their homes and their families for a chance at a better life, a decision, which is never free from risk or worry.
Renée left Haiti with her husband in 1966 so that he could finish his medical studies in Canada. Uncertain of what lay ahead, they left behind their infant daughter and paid off a Haitian official to let them out of the country. Although a newly married couple, they sat separately on the plane to avoid suspicion by Canadian officials that they might be planning to stay. Their efforts would prove futile.
Barbara left the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1954, before the Berlin Wall had been erected and before travel between East and West Germany was made nearly impossible. Barbara profited from the political uncertainty amongst the Allied and Soviet sectors of Germany in the early years of the Cold War and freely crossed the border more than once. At one point, however, she was forced to choose between her new life in the west and her old one, which included her family in the east.
In Part IV of A Current between Shores, Renée and Barbara describe how they left the countries of their birth.
Part IV: On Leaving Home (A Worrisome Fare)
Why did you want to leave Haiti/East Germany?
Renée: “I didn’t really want to leave. My daughter was only four months old and I thought it would be better to join my husband later, when she was older. But he worried I might have problems leaving without him. So we left our daughter behind with my mother-in-law. That was terribly painful.
“Like most doctors back then, my husband wanted to do his specialized training abroad. When Haitians saw how much better life in the US was, they stayed abroad. It was a significant brain drain on the country, so officials eventually made it hard for doctors to leave the country.”
Barbara: “When I thought I was going to become a kindergarten teacher, I went to a kindergarten in Jena and spoke to the teachers. I couldn’t stand the GDR mentality and pedagogy; that patriotism—it was so dogmatic and strict. I knew I couldn’t be a part of that.
“My older brothers had already left East Germany, as it was still politically relaxed before the wall went up. People could travel back and forth between east and west. In September of 1954, I visited my brothers in West Germany and attended a career guidance course, since I had no idea what I would do with my life. I applied for a passport to go to the west and my mother pleaded with me, “Don’t end up staying like your brothers.” I did return, but four months later, I was gone again, for good.”
Describe how you left.
Renée: “I took my daughter to her grandmother’s house, like I did every morning before going to work. She didn’t know that I wasn’t coming back to pick her up in the afternoon, but I cried because I didn’t know when I would see her again.
“Before you traveled outside of Haiti, you had to get permission from the government and send in your name far ahead of time. We first applied to go to Canada, but under separate names, every doctor we knew had done the same. So I had applied for a passport with my maiden name. We also paid someone with connections in the government, to take my husband’s name off the list [of doctors]. When we were at the airport they checked our names on that list, too. It made me very nervous.
“We didn’t go as husband and wife, we didn’t even sit together. But as soon as we landed in Quebec, the people in immigration took us aside. It’s like they were waiting for us. They put us in separate rooms and started asking, Where are you staying? How long are you staying? Why are you here? At some point they realized we were married.”
Barbara: “Once I was in West Germany, and my two-week permit was up, I told my brothers I didn’t want to go back. So we went to immigration and they told me that I’d have to go to a deportation center while my “asylum” case was being processed. I told the officials that my brothers could take care of me and that I wouldn’t be a burden to the system; which was kind of a lie because my brothers were dirt poor. But they believed me and gave me a temporary ID, but it had a photo on it, like any other West German ID.”
Describe your interaction with immigration officials.
Renée: “After they questioned us at the airport in Quebec, they put us on a bus and we drove to a building with bars on the windows. That was the deportation center. Whenever we were outside of our rooms, in the cafeteria or in the TV room, there was always a guard. And the women were always separated from the men. At night, my husband and I were put in separate rooms and locked in. I hadn’t done anything wrong, and I was locked up. I hated that feeling. I just wanted to go home.
“There was a very nice woman who worked the night shift at the center and she took an interest in us. She listened to our story and what we did to leave Haiti. She also knew we were married, so she let us sit together and talk even though it was against the rules.
“We were supposed to be deported on a Monday and she came to us on a Friday and told us she was working on something with a friend of hers at immigration. She didn’t come to work on Saturday and Sunday, so we thought we were going to be deported. By the time Monday came, they told us we could stay in the country. To this day, I don’t know why that woman helped us. I guess it was just out of the goodness of her heart.”
Barbara: “In 1957 I wanted to visit my mother in the GDR but she was denied a permit for my visit because I was considered a west refugee. We were used to changing political phases so we figured it would only be a matter of time before they let us return. Even the Nazi era only lasted 12 years. We had cheered when Stalin died. . . so we thought this political wind would also pass.
“But the Russians had really established themselves there and by 1957, the borders were very tight. But then, just as we expected, there was another phase of political relaxation. In 1959, the GDR allowed west refugees to return a last time to consider repatriation. So my parents got permission for me to go back for 10 days. By then I had been in nursing school in West Germany and my parents took me to several hospitals so that I could find work there. But the way the head nurses spoke to me with every word loyal to the GDR, it just turned me off.
“At the end of my trip, I went to the police registration office and an official there told me that I had two options. I could stay in the GDR but I would have had to go to a repatriation center first. I just knew that would be complete brainwashing. Then he told me the other option: if I wanted to leave, I would never be able to return to the GDR and see my family. That made my blood run cold. But I knew that I would never be able to live in the GDR. I cried on the train on the way back.”
When did you see your country again?
Barbara: “In 1960, I’d hoped to marry at home, but my parents’ application to receive me was rejected again. So they applied for a passport to come to us. The authorities were cruel, they always waited to give rejections at the last minute so you couldn’t plan. My parents got the rejection the day before the wedding. My mother was so furious she wrote a letter of complaint to a GDR authority. We phoned after the ceremony and that same afternoon, my parents received a letter allowing them to travel to West Germany. They came two days after the wedding.
“When my first child was born, the GDR rejected a travel visa for my parents to come to West Germany. Then my second child came and my parents weren’t allowed to see him either. In the fall of 1963 there was another relaxed political phase. West German refugees were allowed to visit the GDR. We went as quickly as we could because we didn’t know how long the border would remain open. My mother applied for authorization for me and I had to get separate passports for the babies. We had to wait for hours at the border and they searched everything to make sure I wasn’t smuggling anything in. We stayed four weeks.
“The trip back to West Germany had been long and exhausting because I had been alone with the children on a very long train ride. I got home late that night when I’d heard “the king is dead.” John F. Kennedy had been killed on that day and we were terribly sad in West Germany. After he’d been in Berlin and said, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” he’d been a hero for us.”
Renée: “In 1967, we moved to the US. We weren’t happy in Canada and my husband never quite got over our experience in the deportation center. He had been ashamed and told me to never tell our family back in Haiti what had happened to us. It had been much easier to get to America and to work there—probably because we were both professionals.
“We first settled in Michigan and had a son. And almost two years after we had left her, we went back to Haiti to get our daughter. Seeing her again made being back in Haiti feel good.”
What runs through your mind when you think about the refugees from your country who weren’t as lucky as you were?
Renée: “When I see Haitian people risking their lives on boats, I know that I was very lucky. I didn’t risk my life but I can relate to their desperation. We all have the same dreams—a better life, a better future for our children.”
Barbara: “We were horrified that East Germans had been killed for trying to get out of the GDR, but there was little we could do about it in the west.
“I didn’t worry about my parents. Their roots were in East Germany. They had created a spiritual network for themselves. They resisted the regime through their spirituality, (Anthroposophy) just as they had during the Nazi era.
“My father was able to create a certain amount of freedom for himself. He hired people in his nursery who couldn’t get other jobs because of their participation in the freedom movement, just as he had hired Jews in the regime prior. So it was hard for me to see their situation as unlucky.”
Have you ever regretted leaving? Would you do it again?
Renée: “Yes, I regret how I left. I should have stayed back and waited for my husband to get his papers first. When we saw our daughter again, it was very hard to bond with her. But, I would do it again. There was no future for us there.”
Barbara: “No, I have never regretted it. I certainly would do it again because I could never have lived in the GDR regime. The GDR is now long over but my youngest sister still lives in our family house and offers to have me come back and live with her. Now that I’m old, I sometimes think about it—it is still home.”
– In Part V of this series, Renée and Barbara discuss the role of feminism in their lives. Previously in Part I, they described growing up in dictatorships and their impressions of democracy, in Part II, both women explored their struggles with poverty and in Part III, they shared how important education was in their lives. – Ed.
About the Author
Rose-Anne Clermont was born in New York City and first lived in Germany on a Fulbright grant from 1998-1999. She holds a Liberal Arts Degree from Sarah Lawrence College and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Columbia University. She has contributed to Spiegel Online, The International Herald Tribune and, in German, to Die Zeit. She currently lives in Berlin with her husband and three sons.
A Current between Shores, appearing on The WIP as a nine-part series, was conceived as “parallel histories from different worlds.” In it Rose-Anne explores the lives and remarkably similar experiences of two of the women closest to her, Renée Clermont, her Haitian mother and Barbara Kemter, her German mother-in-law. Both had their lives transformed under brutal dictatorships more than 50 years ago. Coincidentally, both became nurses and lived to build new lives, raising their children in different worlds from the ones in which they grew up. Now they are grandmothers to shared children. As Rose-Anne says, “They are teachers and keepers of similar histories that we dare not forget.”