Looking into the archives, I continually had to steel myself about what I may find or may not find.
I was specifically looking into the archives of the Nationalities Service Center, a non-profit resettlement agency that has been assisting immigrants and refugees in Philadelphia since 1921. It was initially founded as the International Institute of Philadelphia to assist immigrant women in gaining language proficiency and citizenship. The Temple SCRC houses the NSC’s archives up until the year 1987. Since the majority of Indonesians came to the United States after 1998 when Suharto’s New Order government fell, I knew it was a long shot that I would find anything related to Indonesian immigration, but perhaps I would find something interesting instead. As an immigrant living in the diaspora, I always wondered: Who was the first? Could I find the first Indonesian in Philadelphia? Or at least who was the first in the archives?
Before setting up my appointment with SCRC, I scanned the contents of the NSC Archives online through the finding aid. I searched for Indonesia and its islands. Knowing that the NSC has been around since the 20’s before the creation of Indonesia as a nation, I typed in “Dutch East Indies” into the finding aid, and one item came up. The other items I found were related to Immigration and I requested those as well.
When I got to the newly built Charles Library, I decided to review the contents of the whole box, not just the specific folder and item that I requested.
In the folder titled “Dutch East Indies”, there was only one item inside, the program from a “Rizal Day” event, a Filipino celebration. I’m pretty sure the Philippines were not part of the Dutch East Indies. That was a disappointing find, but I continued to look through the rest of the items in the box.
Next, I found pamphlets from the Boston Public Library and the Free Library of Philadelphia listing books in their collection related to the Netherlands, one titled “The Dutch – The People and Their Lands,” and the one from the FLP titled, “The Netherlands and Her Overseas Territories.”
“The Dutch People – The People and Their Lands” – Boston Public Library Pamphlet – NSC Archives – Temple Special Collections Research Center, Photo by Author
The Boston Library pamphlet was from 1943 and the Philadelphia Free Library pamphlet seems like it was from 1944, the time before Indonesian won Independence but after the Nazi occupation of Holland. An occupier being occupied themselves. What were the reasons for the pamphlets? I wondered. Was it related to Dutch liberation from Nazi Germany?
I scan the pamphlet and see the names of our islands: Sumatra, Java (Jawa), Borneo (Kalimantan), Celebes (Sulawesi), Moluccas (Maluku) and New Guinea (Papua). There was also one book titled “A History of the East Indies from earliest time to the fall of Bandung in 1942,” when the Japanese took the island of Java from the Dutch.
“The Netherlands and her Overseas Territories” – The Free Library of Philadelphia Pamphlet – NSC Archives – Temple Special Collections Research Center, Photo by Author
As I went through each item in each folder in each of the boxes that I requested, something caught my eye and I was hopeful: the cover of the pamphlet read, “American RRA program and The Netherlands,” RRA meaning Refugee and Repatriate Assistance.
The note attached said these were stories of immigrants from The Netherlands who arrived on a ‘specially chartered plane’ on the morning of January 20, 1956.
“The American RRA Program and The Netherlands.” NSC Archives, Temple Special Collections Research Center. Photo by Author.
As I opened the pamphlet and scanned the stories, I began to realize that these were Dutch citizens who were born in the Dutch East Indies, and who found themselves in a precarious situation; the land that was one of their ‘territories’ was now Indonesia, an independent country. After WWII, and the withdrawal of the Japanese, the Dutch came back to what is now Indonesia and resumed the operations of their colonizing enterprises, like the sugar cane factory in my father’s hometown. In 1955, Indonesian President Sukarno hosted the Bandung Conference that condemned colonization and advocated for self-determination for previously oppressed peoples. These Dutch immigrants left in 1956; they saw the writing on the wall.
In the first page was a summary title. “Why do the Dutch wish to migrate to the United States of America?” There were some interesting lines from this page that I took issue with:
“Holland tries to gain land by peaceful means.” Hah!
“Little space, few mineral resources…” that is why they were in Indonesia, and in the Caribbean, all over the world…
“Five years of German occupation handicapped a great many people of Holland in their development…” What about 350 years of Dutch occupation in Indonesia? What did that do to the Indonesian people?
“The course of affairs in Indonesia, where in former times, thousands of people effectively helped to build up that country and make it prosperous…” I’m sure my people were doing just fine before colonizers stepped in our lands…
Who built what country? Who made who prosperous? Were it not for the stolen resources and labor from the Global South, where would Europe be?
I read each story. They were essentially refugees, fleeing a country their government had once colonized. When they went to Holland, they faced scarce resources and opportunity as the Netherlands were in the process of rebuilding their country after WWII. Reading their stories and the way these stories humanized each person and spoke of their potential made me wish we could do this for all immigrants now; the heartbreaking scenes of Haitian refugees at the Mexican border contrasts with the way these Dutch and European immigrants stories were told. I did feel sympathy with the Dutch immigrating to the US as a fellow immigrant, but as an Indonesian, the stories inside also left me incensed and saddened. If your government colonized and stole from a group of people for 350 years, would you expect that you could come back to a home that you no longer own?
Starting in 1953, the Indonesian government took over control of companies previously run by the Dutch and nationalized them, which explains why so many Dutch people were leaving Indonesia to immigrate to America. If Americans can sympathize with the reasons why the Dutch from 1956 wanted to immigrate to America, for better opportunity, to escape economic hardship back home, why can’t they sympathize with immigrants from Indonesia, Vietnam, or Mexico for coming here with the same stories?
I looked through all sorts of folders titled “Ethnic Groups” hoping to find something related to Indonesia, but there was nothing else. Even if Indonesians came to Philadelphia in the 1950’s or 1960’s, they weren’t here to immigrate back then.
In my quest to find the first Indonesians in Philadelphia, instead I found items related to the Dutch. It was disappointing but I realized there are still things I can learn from these findings, about how immigrants’ stories are told.
Reflecting on the items I’ve found in the archives so far, I thought about what the archives were missing. I wish I could write my own pamphlet about all the different reasons that Asians and Indonesians wanted to immigrate to America, to fill in a counter narrative to what the archives are saying , to fill in the missing pieces of the American story by telling Indonesian American stories.
Copyright 2021 by Katherine Antarikso. All Rights Reserved.
Katherine Sarwopeni Antarikso (she/her) is an architect, artist, and activist. She was born in Jakarta, on the island of Java, Indonesia, and moved to the United States at the age of 10. As an architect, she is interested in issues of equity in the design of urban spaces. She performs traditional Indonesian dance and writes poetry and essays focusing on themes of home, migration, and displacement. She is an activist for immigrants’ rights and is a founding member of Pejuang: Indonesian Social Justice Coalition.