THE GIFT OF IMMIGRATION
I have always pondered the gift of sacrifice that a family can either bestow on the next generation or receive from past generations. As an immigrant family and a first-generation American, I know many trials were encountered along the way for my mother’s family to arrive in this country.
My grandparents, Nico and Diny, along with other white and European people, were banished from Indonesia during their revolution into independence in the late 1950s, and the masses of immigrants descended upon the Netherlands, with cold, dreary winters, and four-season living, something difficult for those accustomed to the heat, humidity, and equatorial jungles and tropics of Indonesia. But that refugee status has always felt like an inappropriate title for them. They weren’t refugees, because they held citizenship in the Netherlands.
Many Dutch people raised in Indonesia felt out of place, as (especially for children) the Netherlands was just some “other land” they’d visited once every 6 years on a paid 6 month furlough (with all-expenses-paid-by-your-employer 3 week boat trips to and from), and encountering cousins and family members was often awkward, for they hardly knew them, and attending school in the Netherlands equally challenging, but the Dutch East Indies aimed to prescribe to the Dutch standards of education on the whole. Schools were segregated in the Indies, with the white Dutch children provided the best education possible, but that sad inequality is another story for another day.
Upon arrival to the Netherlands in the late-1950s, Dutch-Indo citizens were considered outcasts and treated as such, and faced pain and difficulty in those days. Now, the country is more diverse, but even those ethnic differences still feel like divisions. In the 1950s, they were considered Dutch-And Something Else (Javan, Sumatran, Medanese, Ambonese, etc: any of the Indonesian variants). Generally speaking, their lineage hailed from a Dutch father and an Indonesian mother.
When I knew my grandparents, Nico and Diny, they were adults in their early 60s and had weathered a long life in three continents, full of adventures and trials. Their existence in Los Angeles was a literal world away from their upbringing in Indonesia and “the war years” in Holland.
Of their new, growing friendships in Los Angeles, their relationship with Dutch native Corrie ten Boom would prove monumental when she moved to the Los Angeles area in the late 1970s. Corrie had survived the horrors of WWII, and her family had sheltered and cared for Jews in Haarlem, suffered in Ravensbrück concentration camp, and watched much of her family die, due to their devotion to justice and love. Corrie’s biography, The Hiding Place, details her family heritage of prayer and mercy, which transpired decades before the Nazis marched into the Netherlands and into her later life as a watchmaker-turned-writer. She was in her 50s when her speaking and traveling career began after the war, and she often wrote about the difficulty of forgiveness and challenges surrounding reconciliation. Ultimately, ten Boom decided: Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.
Many of my grandfather Nico’s war experiences would take me a decade to discover through research, but most of it remains a mystery. Diny shared openly with me over the years, and recorded her stories on CD, and I kept a journal of her stories of grace which felt like miracles.
Diny and Nico had many close friends from a wide range of cultures and ethnicities, from Indo to Indo-Dutch to Dutch, and beyond, and their cultural narrative was broad and rich with diversity. The soundtrack to meals together were the many languages spoken at the dinner table, and the unity of laughter and kindness.
The outright rejection their mixed race friends faced is a terrible legacy of the Netherlands, and felt foreign, isolating, and disappointing to me when I learned of it. Most of those friends also moved to America for the opportunity and the accepting culture that the United States provided.
At my Opa and Oma’s dinner table, all were welcome, and equal, valued, and respected. I feel fortunate that I raised in that environment of acceptance, love, and tolerance for all our differences, and offered the ability to view those differences as beautiful and necessary elements to a rich life.
As my family lineage hails from Dutch ancestry stretching back at least 500 years, my white grandparents didn’t face that same rejection upon their return to the Netherlands in 1957, but they considered how their opportunities would be exponentially better if they lived in America.
Holland faced problems of overcrowding, rebuilding from WWII, and high unemployment rates. They tired of the cold, cloudy winters, and longed for the sunny year-round temperate climate that Southern California boasted. In late 1959, they departed Holland for California.
Now that I’ve known my family heritage for many decades, I can observe the details with a more objective perspective. I consider the notion that my grandparents had a few Dutch guilders in their pockets at the time, a trunk of clothing and a few family heirlooms, and a handful of possessions, so they were more affluent than the true refugees of our day, those escaping war and violence, walking thousands of miles north to our borders with nothing, carrying babies and the elderly, hoping for an entrance to America.
I can’t imagine the pain of that experience, but it behooves me to notice and provide comfort and to advocate for some kind of rescue for those facing so much pain in their home countries, they willingly leave everything behind for the freedom America offers.
I consider that narrative: What if my grandparents and their four young children had walked 2,000 miles to the gates of California in December of 1959 and were denied entrance? What would my life today look like?
In their case, two American businessmen, Mr. Pastore, a senator, and Mr. Walter, a congressman, designed an act which fast-tracked the process. They made it possible for the people who had to flee Indonesia (Dutch and Dutch-Indo alike) could emigrate to America faster than normal. What once took 6-10 years, took 6 months, and families were sponsored by other families, which provided mentorship and guidance into the new culture, language, and environment. As families moved to various cities in the United States and Canada, they promised to sponsor a handful of families as well, continuing the cycle of assimilation and welcome.
Immigrating to a new country is undoubtedly accompanied with a difficult particular set of challenges and doubts. Moving within America, from Colorado to Chicagoland several years ago, was a culture shock for me, an American, I was surprised by the relocation, which took nearly a year to adjust to and assimilate, despite the fact we remained in my birth country and spoke my native language, moving from one metropolis to another.
I realize many families are not as fortunate to arrive in America and navigate a new life here. For our opportunity, I am thankful. I frequently consider this, and never want to live without that gratitude.
My family immigrated to the United States when my mother was a fifth-grader. Realizing the love and care my grandparents held for their children and for future generations has been humbling and a blessing, a legacy worth noting.
In 1939, as Europe was fully awakening to horrors of the Second World War, my grandmother Diny Dekker (who was raised in the Dutch East Indies), her parents, and siblings, found themselves on a boat leaving Batavia (later Jakarta, Indonesia), crossing the seas enroute to the Netherlands for a 6 month season of furlough.
Diny’s father Pieter Dekker was the Head of Police in the Dutch East Indies, and third in command for the nation; as the Police Chief Commissioner of the capital city Batavia, Pieter had just exited a season of grueling police work. The Dekker family had been awarded a routine holiday and planned to stay for six months before returning to the Indies in early 1940.
They arrived in Hilversum, a south-east suburb of Amsterdam, where most of their family lived, and Pieter suddenly realized their Furlough would not be the relaxing holiday he desperately needed and deserved. Troops had been immobilized and the Netherlands (which remained neutral in WWI) seemed poised to join the war. In May, 1940, Hitler invaded, and they entered the war until May 1945, when liberated.
Yet in February, 1940, Pieter was called back to return as the Head of Police. His loving wife Cora convinced him to return alone, for she was thinking of the stability of their children, Diny (18), Nellie (14), and Jan (11), and their need to remain in Holland to remain stable in school, in friendships, and family connections. Cora also felt fatigued by the tropics, and preferred the Dutch climate and culture.
Pieter thus returned to the Dutch East Indies “for one more year” (which turned into six years of starvation, beatings, imprisonment, and near-death at the hands of the Japanese, in Sukamiskin, Buitenzorg, and Tjimahi prisons). By the time Pieter returned to Holland in April 1946, his family hardly recognized him.
Meanwhile, Diny remained in the Netherlands through the War, and at age 18 and the eldest, had promised her father she would care for the family.
“Zorg goed voor je Moeder,” he urged. “Take good care of your Mother.”
She would, she proclaimed, and she did, physically and emotionally carrying her mother and younger siblings through those five years of war, over numerous encounters with death, and through miraculous survival, including walking her brother hundreds of miles into hiding in 1944 (when he became of-age to join the army) to a family farm in the northern part of the country.
In the early days of 1940, Diny met my grandfather Nico, and this blossoming romance also convinced Pieter to return to Indie alone. Nico and Diny were engaged in December 1942. In 1946, year after Europe’s Liberation, Diny was married by-proxy to Nico, as he’d already traveled back to Indonesia with the promise of a wonderful career in the import-export industry.
Nico’s cousin Jacob stood in as the groom, and a large wedding album of festivities in Hilversum City Hall demonstrates their union. Diny placed a small picture of Nico on the table at the reception, as proof of Nico’s “presence” at his own wedding.
In early 1947, Diny journeyed to Indie alone via a boat, into a new life. They married in a second ceremony in the Makassar Christian Reformed Church, and settled into a life on the islands for a decade, in which they had four children together, while rumbles of revolution sporadically interrupted their idyllic lifestyle.
In truth, the Indonesians deserved a chance at ordering their own lives, at real independence from hundreds of years of Dutch rule as a Dutch colony. It’s something my great-grandfather Pieter realized, too, even at the cost of his reputation and decades-long career in the police force, as the first Police Academy graduate as the Head of Police. In 1929, Pieter co-wrote the police training manual which brought up decades of police officers in the Dutch East Indies. His career began in the Indies in 1918 not as a desire for personal gain but for a love for others, a love for the lifestyle of the tropics, and a love of police work.
Pieter Dekker is one of the examples of police officers who aimed to modernize and professionalize the police to the effect of what we now would call ‘good policing’. Ironically, his book was used by the first generation of Indonesian policemen after independence (and even during the revolution and decolonization war). He helped liberate captives through educating them on fighting practices.
For one part as teacher at the Police school, and author of educational material, but also as a dedicated police officer, Pieter’s life was marked by a quiet humility of strong, decisive leadership, coupled with grace and kindness. For all his success, it was the steadfast love and devotion of his wife Cora and his faith in God which enabled Pieter the ability and strength to accomplish all these things.
Cora and Pieter’s love for all people fueled his drive to liberate Indo prostitutes and the abused in the mid-1930s, to aim to eradicate child trafficking within the islands, to advocate for the care and freedom of marginalized and outcast women and children. He sought to hold abusers accountable in the capital city of Batavia, and that mandate continued in other places on the islands.
At the time, the head of the country, Governor-General Tjarda van Starkenborgh Stachouwer, legislated for the elimination of all homosexuals in the Dutch East Indies. In that mandate, Pieter hesitated, balked, and eventually refused, as his youngest brother was a gay man living in Amsterdam with his partner.
Ulitimately, that mandate spread throughout all the islands, and turned into an international scandal when the Resident (second in command for the country) was found to be physically abusing young male Indo boys.
Pieter was held accountable for that refusal, while Governor Stachouwer ended up a war hero, imprisoned in China during the war and liberated from the Manchurian camp at Hsien with prominent prisoners like American General Jonathan Wainwright.
Even as the leadership above Pieter neglected and abused their power for personal gain, Pieter remained dedicated to freeing captives of every kind. His devotion to God and desire to provide freedom for captives are some of the most important lessons of my life.
Eventually, as Indonesia battled a war of its own from 1945-the late 1950s, my grandparents Nico and Diny moved from Indonesia, that land they loved, to the Netherlands, and finally immigrated to Los Angeles they remained in America. It became their adopted permanent land.
In that season of life, my grandmother undoubtedly faced many trials while raising four small children and seeking to support her husband’s career and ambitions. She spoke very little English. I imagine a seasoned, yet calm woman standing at the edge of grace, peering past circumstance of present or any viewable obstacle, to step forward and boldly accept the gifts of: freedom, time, opportunity, faith.
What was sacrificed? Extended family and familiar comforts were no longer possible – they could not return to Indonesia, their desire and love. The Netherlands was a familiar place, yet their dreams explored beyond those borders, to distant shores and other promises, where they would be gathered by dear friends, whose embrace they would know for a lifetime.
How appropriate, then for their arms to extend to others in time of need, to welcome similar-minded friends amidst a fresh landscape. Los Angeles did not beckon them any more than the general appeal of America – the romantic idealism of a city with opportunity – as simply stated as this. Not even anything save the connections of other friends who’d pioneered the move, also banished from a beloved adopted country, to step into another possibility-loved location.
For any selfish endeavor their relocating may have nurtured, the immense possibilities for their children – and future generations – certainly abounded. If only for those who would benefit, for grandchildren and beyond. The magnitude of the event would be considered immediately. The necessary gratitude might not be expressed until a generation-removed, for those fully benefiting would stand beside, clutch a hand, and with warm tears, feel amazement and inexpressible respect.
I too, lived for a season of life in my early 20s in the Netherlands, and sailing on my bicycle on cobblestones streets, wandering the Dutch gardens at The Keukenhof, and eating an Indonesian Rijsttafel in Amsterdam felt welcomed, the language a soothing and seasoned friend. The culture felt vibrant and I wondered at my family’s fortunate chance in America, wondering what their prospects in the Netherlands would have developed or changed. What would their lives have been if they stayed in Amsterdam?
Those mysteries must not hold importance, as the land is a heritage, a bloodline, but not a requirement. A place breeding hope, for which I am also thankful to inherit.
I wonder at the lethargy even the most spirited immigrants may sometime experience (which I note in my three daughters, at times, a sense of impatience or unwillingness), a few generations removed from the initial event.
That growing sense of entitlement or fortune; a removed sense of real, genuine faith – to believe – and sincerely travel in that element. When one has not experienced the ultimate depravity of circumstance or influence, the marvelous grace-filled testimony of parents or grandparents may lose their sense of place, urgency, or extremity.
Even my dear older brother Tim, following his miraculous aortic repair surgery at age 27, would note that time and length from the miracle could sometimes lessen the efficacy of the miracle.
One can truly recall the anxiety, fear, complete dependence upon God’s strength – for daily measure. Yet most of us, following a near-auto accident or medical disaster – can just as easily trample over those we love, in a self-absorbed manner, overcome by unimportant details. Perhaps I speak from my own sense of forgetfulness, my own errors and feeble humanity.
In 2011, I traveled to Virginia for my brother Daryl’s PhD graduation, and eagerly anticipated the journey from western Colorado to Denver, to fly to Richmond.
Yet on the way, I experienced a surreal moment of my car spinning in rain-turned-ice and nearing a steep drop-off while driving in a mid-May journey through the Colorado Rockies. Just over the Eisenhower Tunnel, on an impossibly steep down slope, the pouring rain turned to ice within the time frame of just a few seconds.
What truly amazed me in that moment while driving alone near dusk: the blessing of being alone, the blessing of not hitting another vehicle, the blessing of my car spinning in circles and – despite the lack of a guardrail – not falling off the cliff. It was an unexpected and unwarranted mercy.
I was able to pray – and think – in an instant, as though time slowed and my mind focused. My car finally stopped facing forward, ahead, inches from a signpost, and I was able to settle my anxiety and drive back on to the Interstate and continue my journey.
When I arrived at my dear friend Erin’s house in Denver three hours later, she welcomed me (as I was sobbing) and kindly and ushered me to a warm shower and a delicious dinner.
I felt the terror of near-death, and then the affection of friendship that provided compassion and encouragement. God’s grace, and a friend’s love, brought great comfort. The next day, Erin drove me to the airport and I flew on a plane to Virginia, where I was able to spend a week with much of our family, celebrating my brother Daryl in his monumental milestone of his PhD. It was a beautiful and memorable week, one I think on fondly with gratitude.
Yet even now, nearly 8 years after this event – I struggle to remember that gift of life that night. We lived in Grand Junction for a total of five years, and each time I drove past that steep hill on Interstate 70, I felt thankful for God’s grace and promised to not forget: to set a milestone at that marker, of a moment when He gave me another opportunity to serve Him. While I can’t remember that exact marker number now, I clearly recall the experience which shaped my character.
Likewise, as my grandmother Diny grew older, into her late eighties, she would often remark that while the details of those long days in WWII grew hazy at times, the Lord’s love and faithfulness in those days was still active and prevalent in her mind.
By recalling these grace-laden events, recognizing the loving direction of God’s able hands, my hope is that my daughters, and our future generations, may be set apart, that our thankful inheritors may know their lives were purposeful, their intentions were wholesome, and spirit fully devoted to serving God.
The ultimate testimony of their expression would offer open hands and eager hearts, forging their dreams by God’s design and living in humility and grace, extending that mercy to others each day.
In Those Other Lands: a tale of survival, hope, and redemption. Purchase via Amazon.com at: tinyurl.com/y7uxuqx2