Stunted family tree

Last night we went to dinner at a chef friend‘s house. There were ten of us in total; five of whom I’d never met before. During pre-meal cocktails (which reminds me, I need to go shopping) we exchanged some basic personal information, including, as is normal in gatherings in Brussels, a potted history of where we came from, where we’d lived before, and what we were doing in Brussels (six of the ten present, myself included, were immigrants to Belgium).

Then one of the native Belgians, a lady probably in her late 50s or early 60s, mentioned that her maternal grandmother was Russian (at first I thought she’d said “mother” but that doesn’t fit with the timeline so maybe I misheard and she actually said “grandmother”). Apparently she had been smuggled out of the country aged three during the upheavals of the Russian revolution and sent to live in the safety of a Belgian convent. She spent the rest of her life here, never spoke Russian, and was never able to re-establish contact with any of her family back in Russia, even assuming they’d survived. There was no paper trail and any contact with the authorities hit a brick wall.

What struck me about this was how much I take for granted that my ancestors, as far back as records exist (which in my case is several hundred years) are known. I have names, in some cases photographs, and in a handful of cases living memories through my mother. But for this lady there was nothing prior to the two previous generations. Her grandmother had started from scratch; a refugee orphan cut off from her culture, history and family.

How many of the child refugees from places like Syria will have similar experiences now? Parents dead or lost during civil war or during their flight across Europe in search of safety, their memories hazy and fading, they’ll have to hope that they’ll be given the opportunity to make a new life for themselves elsewhere, to create a new history and a sense of cultural identity.


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