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The Immigrant Experience and the Boston Bombings

The terrible events in Boston over the past week have made me think a lot about the immigrant experience here in the U.S. and the kinds of things that we keep to connect us to the old country. Despite all the hype about the American dream, the Tsarnaev brothers’ personal experience here was so bad that it caused them to lash out in a way that has been a stunning shock to our nation.

I have a small but precious collection of items brought over to America by my Swedish ancestors on my mother’s side. My great-grandfather Olaf, who immigrated at age 12, left a worn little diary written in Swedish with a series of sketches, a painting, and a few photographs. On the other side of the family, I have photographs and letters kept by my grandfather Andrew, who immigrated from Sweden in 1896 and got a job on the California Southern Pacific Railroad. It wasn’t highly paid work, but he was getting by and had hopes for the future.

These letters to Andrew are of interest to me right now because they reflect a common theme of the immigration experience: His family left behind in Sweden wrote to say, “Now that you live in America and are rich, could you give us a car?”

I think the Tsarnaev brothers’ expectations might have been similar to this. They were brought to the US with hopes for a better life, were sent to excellent schools, won scholarships. But the family struggled financially, and apparently did not achieve the rapid success that they were expecting. Living on public assistance, the brothers still drove an old Mercedes (apparently it never occurred to them to sell this gas guzzler to help get the younger brother through school).

I’m not saying that the family wasn’t willing to work hard; apparently they did. But times are hard for most of us right now, and I wonder if these two young men in particular were burdened with expectations that they found impossible to meet. Filled with resentment at the ongoing struggle to survive, feeling that they had been cheated out of what America was supposed to give them, the older brother Tamerlan in particular may have been a vulnerable target for a radical recruiter.

To Asian immigrants in the late 1800s, America was known as the “Golden Mountain.” For those who are lucky and willing to work hard, it can be. But it’s not always – my grandfather held a job and managed to buy a house with his wife working as well. But he never was able to buy his relatives back home a car.

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