My grandfather was a refugee

My Italian immigrant grandmother, Angelina, told me the story of how Grandpa Mike came to America. She said that he was a Socialist and had to flee the Fascists in the middle of the night because he feared for his life. “From the early spring of 1921, the Fascists, the Black Shirts, carried out a systematic terrorist campaign against the Socialist and Communist groups.” (

Angelina (Gamberale) Marinelli
(Grandma Ang)

Michele Marinelli (Grandpa Mike)

16 Mag 1921

Grandpa Mike’s passport is stamped 16 Mag 1921 (Mag is the abbreviation of Maggio, Italian for May) and shows that he escaped from Naples and landed on Ellis Island. That date coincides with the Fascist's terrorist campaign (not that I ever doubted the veracity of my Grandma Ang's story).

What is a refugee?
A World War I veteran, my grandfather, at age 22 fled his beloved Agnone, a small village in the hills of central Italy, because his countrymen would kill him for his political beliefs. defines a refugee as “a person who flees for refuge or safety, especially to a foreign country, as in time of political upheaval, war, etc.” That sounds like Grandpa Mike.

Agnone, Italy, 2015

The Other
Between 1880 and 1920, more than 4 million Italians came to the United States, representing 10 percent of the nation’s immigrants. Just as many Americans cast a suspicious eye on immigrants from Latin America and predominantly Muslim countries today, Italians were viewed as the “Other” during that time and were targeted by similar anti-immigrant sentiment, including lynching by the Ku Klux Klan.
“Anti-immigrant sentiment continued until the 1920s, when severe restrictions on immigration were put into place by the U.S. Congress. When this legislation passed, the great era of Italian immigration came to an end.” (Library of Congress)


Fortunately, Grandpa Mike was not turned away at Ellis Island. Fortunately, for my father, Bernard, and his brother Ralph. Fortunately for me, my ten biological siblings and one adopted brother. Fortunately, for Ralph’s two sons, my cousins. Fortunately, for my daughter and her 14 cousins. Fortunately, for my great niece and all of her cousins, yet to be born. And their descendants. And theirs. And theirs…

My daughter, Domenica, at 2-years-old. (Printed without permission.)


5 thoughts on “My grandfather was a refugee”

  1. Ursula, this is a great story! Our Italian grandparents immigrated here during WW1. They lived most of their adult lives with their 7 children (my dad) in Selma, AL in the “black neighbor.” Italians weren’t very welcome in those days.

  2. Thank you for sharing, Ursula! We are a country of immigrants- some people seem to have forgotten their own history! Good to see you after so many years 🙂

  3. Finally slowed down enough to catch up on reading like Sunday’s Detroit Free Press, my email, etc. (It’s Tuesday! ) I read your blog about your grandma and grandpa Marinelli. Did they arrive on Ellis Island at the same time as my grandma and grandpa Tocco or my Nonna and Puppa Chinni? Are we soul sisters from an alternative universe?
    After all, we traveled to Kenya on safari, to DC for the Woman’s March…Italy next?

  4. Hey could you tell that beautiful child in the photo to make contact with her lonely father? It’s been like two weeks since he’s heard from her. Sheesh! Thanks for the post, Ursula. The Other is us. It always has been. If you love America, then you’ve gotta’ love Americans. All Americans.

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