My grandparents emigrated from Japan to California in the 1920s. During family gatherings when I was a young boy, I heard stories of how they missed seeing their friends, cousins, aunts, and uncles when they first arrived in the United States. It wasn’t always easy for them – federal laws and policies excluded Asian immigrants throughout the course of the early 20th century as racism and economic competition intensified – but ultimately, new American friends in their San Francisco neighborhood and a local community of fellow small business owners provided them with a lifetime of memories as they raised four children, including my dad.
Today as a diplomat in Slovakia, I have seen first-hand the impact of nearly 500,000 refugees streaming over the Slovak-Ukrainian border since February – the equivalent of 10% of Slovakia’s entire population – Slovakia’s immigration, health, and social welfare systems could have easily collapsed in the wake of Russia’s callous attack. Yet, the Slovak government, local non-profits, and its generous citizens mounted a historic humanitarian response that provided shelter, food, jobs, mental health care, pet supplies, and much more to Ukrainians forced to leave their homes. As with our enduring support for Ukraine and its people, our recognition of the generosity and commitment of NATO Allies like Slovakia has been equally resolute. It was under this umbrella of deep appreciation that my team and I welcomed First Lady Dr. Jill Biden to Slovakia – the first visit of this type in 17 years.
News of Dr. Biden’s visit permeated Slovak society becoming the topic of conversation at cafes, family gatherings, local news outlets, social media platforms, and government meetings. As a small country in Central Europe, high-level visitors are historically uncommon. There was excitement in the air in anticipation of her arrival to the capital city of Bratislava, but the greatest enthusiasm was found in Eastern Slovakia along the border to Ukraine where few foreign visitors travel, let alone the First Lady of the United States. As the motorcade traveled through the country’s blend of steel and car plants, architectural remnants of a bygone Soviet era, rolling hills, and small family-run farms, Slovaks by the hundreds lined the single-laned streets, many adorned in traditional outfits, waving, holding balloons, and taking photos as they welcomed Dr. Biden.
The warmth of the First Lady’s gratitude was ever-present as she comforted displaced Ukrainian moms, dads, and children while applauding government leaders, community organizers, and educators. She commended Slovak and international humanitarian aid workers for the commitment in responding to needs specific to Russia’s invasion, such as professional psychosocial work for refugees. In what became a headline grabbing “first” for a First Lady, Dr. Biden crossed over the border from Slovakia to Ukraine and into an active war zone to meet with Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska as well as mothers, and their children at a local school.
While accompanying the First Lady, I heard heartache from refugees who told us how they had to separate from their families, leaving behind fathers, sons, grandparents, friends, and most of their possessions. But I was also struck by genuine moments of hope and appreciation. Ukrainians made a point to tell us that they were deeply moved by the compassion of the people of Slovakia and that they wanted to thank them for their unrestrained hospitality.
First Lady Dr. Jill Biden @FLOTUS thanked Prime Minister @eduardheger for all 🇸🇰 government's efforts in support of the people of #Ukraine More than 70,000 Ukrainian refugees now call Slovakia home. Dr. Biden talked to NGOs at Vyšné Nemecké border & praised their passion to help. pic.twitter.com/MNcP8U2G2C
— USembassySK (@USEmbassySK) May 8, 2022
Hearing these stories of struggle and gratitude struck a personal chord with me. As Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage month comes to a close and I reflect on the First Lady’s visit, I am reminded of my grandparents’ journey and more recent events in the AANHPI community. The life of an immigrant or refugee is not always an easy one, and the path towards equality is not always linear, . Within the State Department, we are still working to implement changes to improve diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.
Despite these challenges, the gratitude that my grandparents had for the welcoming spirit they encountered in their neighborhood more than 100 years ago in America is the same I see today as communities across the United States come together to support social justice and equality, and it was the same I felt traveling with the First Lady. The American spirit that I’ve trumpeted for nearly 20 years as a diplomat is alive and well in both the United States and Slovakia. Like my grandparents many years ago, today Ukrainian refugees benefit from the open-hearted hospitality of the people of Slovakia. It was a personal honor and career highlight to join the First Lady to celebrate the American values embodied in Slovakia’s unconditional assistance to the citizens of Ukraine.
About the Author: Nicholas Namba is a career Foreign Service Officer currently serving as Chargé d’Affaires, a.i. at the U.S. Embassy in Bratislava, Slovakia. Mr. Namba has previously served in Russia, India, Ethiopia, and Washington, DC.