Our ‘Mygration Story’ series tracks the family histories of staff and fellows at UNU. The aim is to show that many of us owe our lives and careers to the courage of migrant ancestors. People who left their homes to build safer or better lives — for themselves and for their children. With this monthly series we want to show that migration is not an historical aberration, but a surprisingly common element in family histories worldwide.
When Isaac Attie arrived in Bolivia in 1917, he brought all his worldly belongings in a single suitcase. He had travelled to Latin America in search of a safer and better life: far from the conflict and turmoil of Europe and the Middle East.
My great-grandfather was born in Damascus in 1894 and then emigrated to Eretz Israel (Palestine), where he studied to become a forester, in what was then the Turkish Ottoman Empire. In 1914, like a great number of Jews, he travelled to Buenos Aires, Argentina; but unlike the majority of those migrants, he decided to move north to Tarija, Bolivia. This small Andalusian-style city welcomed him with open arms, much as the country welcomed Jewish migrants in general. He soon fell in love with Tarija and decided not only to put down roots, but also to give something back to his adopted city.
While two of his brothers thrived in the private sector, Isaac dedicated his entire adult life to public service. In 1929 he became Chairman of the City Council and later he was elected Mayor, a position he held for 12 years. During his tenure Bolivia fought against Paraguay in La Guerra del Chaco (the Chaco War), a region to the south of Tarija. The city had a vital role in supporting the Bolivian war effort and the mayor provided all the support he could muster. His accomplishments however, went far beyond that into healthcare, education and culture. To this day his name is fondly remembered in Tarija along with his nickname El Turco Rubio (the Blond Turk).
Mr. Attie had three children, one of whom was my grandmother – a lady who always reminded us of the importance of hard work, honesty and faith. Values her father had taught her from an early age. My father and his sisters were very close to their grandfather and they remembered how much importance he ascribed to family and community. His legacy lives on not only in our family but also in a school founded and run by my aunt, which still bears his name. After a full life Isaac Attie passed away in 1968.
My great-grandfather’s story is emblematic because it shows how Jewish migrants who came to Latin America with little or no Spanish skills, or knowledge of the local cultures, were able to become valued and active members of society. A man from Damascus, who at the age of 20 had probably never heard of Tarija would later become one of its most revered public servants. He may not have known the name of his future home, but his spirit and willingness to serve the public good was already deep within him; he was just one example of how migrants and their children should be empowered to serve, to dedicate their lives to the public good in their adopted countries. People like Sadiq Khan, the recently elected Mayor of London.
Integration is everything
Europe is now facing a daunting migration crisis, with millions of people entering its borders on an annual basis. But now more than ever it is important to remember one thing: migration may pose immense challenges to host countries, but the long-term result can be beneficial whenever migrants are able to integrate. There are many countries – Bolivia among them – which have thrived thanks to a mix of positive migrants and positive integration policies. They have thrived when they ensured migrants had all they needed to live a meaningful life.
I have also been a migrant for the last eight years. Much like my great-grandfather, after finishing high school I decided to move across the world – albeit for very different reasons – and to explore as much as possible. By the time I was 25 I had lived in five countries on two continents, giving me the chance to immerse myself in the wonders of different cultures; while seeing at first hand the difficulties of being a migrant but also how host countries and communities deal (or not) with these challenges.
I now have the privilege to work in the Netherlands for the United Nations University, at a time when the continent is facing a migration crisis of unprecedented dimensions. The United Nations now has the task to assist all countries that are facing migration crises across the world. It is time to show that the organisation – which is staffed by thousands of migrants like me – has the necessary cohesion and long-term vision to make a meaningful impact. I hope to play a small role in this endeavour.
The life of my great-grandfather is a source of inspiration for me, as it is for all those who know his story. He is just one of thousands of migrants who worked tirelessly for the betterment of their adopted countries; I’m sure there are countless, similar untold stories all over the world.