She was 95 when she died.
But the life she lived and experienced in those 95 years.
Born in 1920 in Lipovo, Polje, Yugoslavia, Manda Beslac, a young Serbian girl, fled with her brother to escape the horrors of World War II. You see, the Nazis didn’t really approve of Orthodox Christians, either.
With one loaf of bread given by her mother and a prayer that she would survive, she traveled through Slovenia and into Italy, where she lived in a refugee camp for two and a half years. She met her husband there. A daughter would be born there. A later move to another refugee camp in Germany, her husband would be killed and a new love found. She married Milan Beslac in December of 1948 and immigrated to the United States in 1949.
She lived in South Bend, Indiana for the next 65 years.
I saw her last at my godfather’s funeral in July. A moment to remember me, but once she did, her eyes filled with light and a still heavy Serbian accent reminiscing about my own grandparents and how wonderful they were.
How wonderful their lives were, here in the United States.
They all came here. Whether it was grandparents or great-grandparents, an ancestor of ours made their lives in the United States. Included in this are the ancestors of those saying we should no longer welcome those who need a safe place to build a life.
So soon they forget.
Their own parents, grandparents, great aunts and uncles, escaping, leaving everything behind, to come make a new life.
Dangers existed then,too. There was always something, some reason someone could have given in 1914, in 1939, in 1949. A reason to say, you are not welcome here.
But they didn’t.
They were brave and true and unafraid. They would not let the evil bleed into the good. They stood their ground and said, “You will not change who we are.”
I am here because of that. You and your family are most likely here because of that. I am here because my grandparents were able to come and build a life here – a life to be free, without registering who they are because of their beliefs. The exact thing they fled.
I sit in my comfortable home, my warm clothes, my safe children.
I will never forget what Manda went through. We should all know what she went through, and what our own families went through, to build the lives we all comfortably live. And we should honor them.
Because when we deny others the same privilege, to come here and build a life, we forget. We forget our grandparents. I forget my Deda, whose father died on the boat to the United States from Serbia, who built a life here without him.
Instead, I choose the other. I will not forget. I choose to remember and honor him. And honor Manda. And I will do that by saying, you are welcome here.
Or let the words of the brave men and women who built our country say them for me:
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!