Independence is considered a special treasure for citizens of the United States, and Independence Day is considered the nation’s most important civic holiday. Americans celebrate it in different ways with family and friends, at parades, fireworks and picnics. July 4th is a day which unites all faiths, races and origins in a colorful tapestry. We, or our ancestors, immigrated here from far-off countries to realize new dreams inspired by the leading light of the famous bronze sculpture of the goddess of liberty—Lady Liberty.

When I left Nazi- and communist-poisoned Hungary after the October Revolution to immigrate to the United States I did not have any knowledge of Pilgrims or “Founding Fathers” but when I saw the Statue of Liberty from the airplane window I began to cry. That window view, and later Emma Lazarus’s words engraved on the foundation of the Statue of Liberty, moved me in powerful ways.

Lazarus wrote:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The poem was intended by its creator to be a monument to the spirit of revolution shared by France and America. “Liberty Enlightening the World” was the original name of the statue. She represents the Roman goddess Libertas and carries a table of law engraved with the date July 4, 1776. A broken chain lies at her feet, while the torch represents the truth of the Enlightenment, in particular, the legal and political writings which inspired both the American and the French revolutions.

In 1883 Emma Lazarus interpreted the torch as a “lamp,” which lights the path of “exiles” from political oppression. The statue signifies a welcome to the poor and homeless who can expect no social or political future. It is a welcoming sight after crossing the stormy Atlantic, but, perhaps more importantly, it is often a sign of peace after the political storms which have made refugees homeless. It is not easy for people to leave their place of birth, even if they were betrayed there and constantly danced on the edge of the grave. Here, refugees were, and are, helped to start a new life and forget the past. They come with nothing but the overwhelming desire to work hard to attain their dreams.

Tom Sbarra, a retired cardiologist and a Neighborhood Falmouth volunteer and board member, is a case in point. His grandparents were from Italy and eastern Europe who came to the United States between 1890 and 1910. From Ellis Island the Slovak side of his family found their way to the coalfields of Eastern Pennsylvania. There they raised six children and made sure all had a good future. His Italian grandfather, a baker, established a successful pastry shop in Brooklyn. When the Depression struck, Tom’s father had to leave school in the 8th grade. He worked hard and was able to move his family from the city tenements to a modest home on Long Island, where the school system was better for his two sons. The family thrived.

Local attorney and Neighborhood Falmouth volunteer and board member Martha Gavenas also has an immigration story. Both of her grandparents immigrated from Hungary, while her husband Emil’s grandfather came from Lithuania and later became a teacher.

“My husband’s father came from Lithuania when he was 16, just before World War II. He ended up fighting for his new country before he could even speak English,” remembered Martha. “Independence Day means family to me because of the special relationship my predecessors had with America. My grandparents, on both sides, came to the United States from Hungary. I am still in awe of their bravery and courage. They were peasant farm workers and they risked everything to come to an unknown country of hope and promise. They loved America for the freedom and opportunity it offered. They also loved their Hungarian heritage and were able to continue its customs and traditions for their children without government restrictions. Their journey is what America is about.”

Oliver (Ollie) Zafiriou is an emeritus scientist from Woods Hole and a volunteer for Neighborhood Falmouth. Christos, his Greek father, lived in Turkey. As a young man in about 1911, Christos was in a cafe in Yemen when the local (Greek) postmaster saw him and said Christos would receive a letter the next day that he didn’t want. It was a draft notice for the Turkish army, a probable death sentence for Greeks. That night he left for the coast, where he took a boat to French Djibouti and somehow appeared at Ellis Island in 1913. In 1940 he married Ollie’s mother and sadly died on his son’s 9th birthday.

My dreams were also fulfilled. I was teaching retired professionals looking for second careers as writers when I shared my European experience with the class. I reminded these younger generations how lucky they are to live in this country. With their encouragement I am working on the final section of my memoirs titled, “My Life in America.” I am also proud to be a member of and volunteer for Neighborhood Falmouth.

Madeleine Felker is a member and volunteer at Neighborhood Falmouth, the local nonprofit that helps Falmouth seniors stay safely and comfortably in their own homes for as long as possible. New volunteers are always appreciated. Contact them at neighborhoodfalmouth.org or by calling 508-564-7543.

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