The recent furore over Donald Trump’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents and placing them in enclosures that have been likened to cages, seems in the end to have brought out the best in American society.
After all, virtually all Americans, Trump included, can trace their roots back to immigrant forefathers, whether relatively recent or distant. For many years immigration into America was permitted in almost unlimited fashion. In the 1930s, following the Great Depression, America introduced quotas restricting the number of immigrants by country, thus putting paid to the hopes of many European Jews of finding refuge from Nazi persecution.
Initially there seemed to be general support for Trump’s policy of ‘zero tolerance’ regarding the illegal entry into America of people entering the country via the southern border from Mexico. However, as reporters and photographers provided evidence of the heartbreaking scenes of children being separated from their parents, this gave way to widespread indignation.
To America’s credit, except in a handful of cases, this indignation was expressed right across the board, regardless of party affiliation or political beliefs. The general outrage eventually persuaded even that most stubborn and presumably heartless of presidents to revoke his edict, which he falsely claimed had been introduced by the previous Democratic administration.
The whole episode brought back to me an episode from my own life, which I call ‘my epiphany in the library.’
When I was studying for a degree in Sociology at the London School of Economics back in the 1960s, we were told to read the work of psychologist John Bowlby on maternal deprivation. Sitting in the university library, I read about the deleterious effects of separating a young child from his or her mother. It was then, at the age of eighteen, that I remembered having been told that when I was one year old I was sent away to a children’s home in the countrside in the framework of the evacuation of children from London during the Blitz of the Second World War. My parents had said that before that I had sung and even spoken, but that when I was brought back, about a year later, it took a long time before I would sing and speak again.
At the time the account of what had been done to me left me unmoved, but as I read more and more about the long-term psychological damage that separation from a mother or surrogate mother does to a very young child I became more and more agitated. I don’t know if I burst into tears there and then, but I certainly had a lot of food for thought.
I was living at home at the time, and when I got home later that day I asked my mother, possibly with a note of accusation in my voice, how she could have done that to me, her only child at the time. I recall that my mother became very upset, possibly even breaking down in tears, and said that what they had done had been only for my own good, to save me from possible injury or death from the bombing.
At that time, my parents were house-parents at a hostel for some twenty-five refugee children who had come to England in the framework of the Kindertransport, which gave refuge to ten thousand unaccompanied children from Europe. So the concept of separating children from their parents must have seemed quite reasonable to them, although none of their wards were under the age of eight or nine, and some were already in their teens. Most of those younger children were also sent out of London in the framework of the general evacuation policy.
Many years later I wrote about this episode in my life, as well as others, in my first novel, ‘The Balancing Game.’ I have no actual memory of the event, but I’m in no doubt that it affected my psyche. Writing about what I imagined that I felt may well have served in some way to help heal the wounds.
However, it isn’t necessary to have experienced maternal deprivation oneself in order to feel empathy for the children of immigrants separated from their parents, as has been proved by recent events in America.
I can only say, well done, America, and thank goodness for its free press and social media. The uproar forced Trump to crumble. If only other countries had behaved in a similar fashion who knows how different history might have been. But at least the America of today has proved that it has a heart and that the vaunted American values still prevail.