Migrations of Need

RICHARD REEVES

August 17, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

BANGOR-ERIS, IRELAND. — Bangor-Eris, Ireland-- Conor O'Neill ran down the boggy hill jumping from one grassy clump to another with the certain grace of an athlete 22 years old. At the bottom, standing by a creek they call a river here, he stared for a long time at a ruin, a little stone cottage open to the sky since its thatched roof collapsed long ago.

He turned and ran back up to the road, asked for a camera, then headed back into the bog. The broken cottage in a barren and windy landscape, near a settlement called Glencullen Lower, was the home of the widow Katie Rowan Ruddy, his great-grandmother.

His grandmother, Bridget Ruddy, left this place in 1929 to go to America, to work as a maid on Park Avenue in New York City. She married Patrick Vesey, a motorman on the New York subways who grew up 30 miles from Bangor-Eris. They moved to Woodside in the borough of Queens and had two daughters. One, Mary Ann Garvey, is a lawyer in Chicago. The other one, Catherine O'Neill, is director of an international refugee organization, Conor's mother and my wife.

An American story, we think. But other countries have their stories, too. There are thousands of new ones every day now: Albanians trying to get into Italy; Poles trying to get into Germany; North Africans trying to get into France; Kurds and Palestinians trying to find any refuge; Mexicans, Haitians and Russians trying to get into the United States. Some are fleeing political tyranny -- meeting the classic definition of ''refugee'' -- 22 but most are economic refugees fleeing poverty, as Bridget Ruddy and her three sisters, all of them still alive today in New York and London, were 60 years ago.

These were three of the headlines in the International Herald Tribune the day Conor O'Neill, a 1991 graduate of Vassar, saw Glencullen:

* ''Albanians Facing Expulsion Battle Italian Police'';

''Europe's New Continental Drift: The East's Poor Invade the Rich West'';

* ''New Cultures Alter Face of U.S. Heartland.''

The Albanians in Bari, Italy, and the Vietnamese in Kansas are, in the words of Ronald Reagan, ''voting with their feet.'' They are also people trying desperately to redefine President Bush's ''new world order.'' The president of the richest country sees the order of the day, backed by U.S. military power, as a way to preserve the world's status quo. But refugees, exiles and immigrants are trying to change the world -- or, at least, change their place in it.

Migration of the poor, or relatively poor, legal and illegal, could very well be the last great event of the 20th century. The grass really is greener on the other side of many boundaries, and everyone knows that for sure now because of television, which no longer has borders: East Germans saw the west of Germany; the Albanians saw Italy; and Estonians saw Finland. They all see the United States all the time. The cool circus that television is calms some but energizes others to go for a part of the action they see in their home day and night.

Which side are you on? It depends. On that same day, the Irish Times editorially declared ''No Welcoming Mat,'' calling for a European summit meeting to deal with the new mass migration.

But, in the same issue, the paper's economic editor, Cliff Taylor, analyzed the Irish economy, which is not good and has unemployment near 30 percent, with this lead paragraph: ''Unemployment will continue to climb unless the level of emigration picks up sharply.'' In other words, Irish prosperity in 1991 depends on young people emigrating to the United States, Great Britain and continental Europe.

So, we are all in this together, the rich and the poor. ''Unless trade investment and aid programmes are tailored to narrow these gaps between rich worlds and poor,'' the Irish Times editorial concluded, ''mass migration is likely to do so instead.''

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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