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Independence Day has different meanings for immigrants, veterans

| Thursday, July 3, 2014, 9:45 p.m.

Today America celebrates Independence Day with parades, cookouts, family and fireworks, but for many citizens the holiday's deeper meanings are foremost in their minds.

For them, it's about worshipping how they please, speaking their minds, or protesting against the government without fear of retribution.

We asked seven Western Pennsylvanians to reflect on their American journeys for the Fourth of July, the anniversary of our nation's 1776 Declaration of Independence from British rule.

Their stories are unique yet universal: A Greensburg man born under the reign of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini came to the United States with almost nothing and now runs his own restaurant. A 20-year-old Baldwin High School graduate born on the Fourth of July in a Nepali refugee camp is a college student.

Here is what they said ...

Diwas Timsina: A place to belong

Diwas Timsina makes a point to tell everyone he meets that his birthday is on the Fourth of July.

After all, in his native land, that day had no meaning. To him, it's a sign that he now is where he belongs — in the land of the free.

“This is the place that I was destined to be. It's home,” said Timsina, who turns 20 on Friday.

Timsina was born in a refugee camp in Nepal, after his family was forced to leave their homeland of Bhutan because of ethnic cleansing in the 1990s.

Houses were small in the camp, with walls made of bamboo and plastic. The refugees gathered wood from the jungle to cook on mud and straw ovens. They slept on bamboo and wooden beds. In schools, students learned English from teachers who spoke primarily Nepali. They had few books, which were falling apart.

“We survived, but it was rough,” Timsina said. “Whenever I'd think about America, I'd think it's a utopia.”

In 2008, Timsina, his parents, two siblings and other family members, resettled to Atlanta. The family stayed there for three years before moving to Pittsburgh to pursue educational and career opportunities. They lived in the Whitehall Place complex until buying a home in Baldwin Borough last month.

Timsina graduated from Baldwin High School in 2012 and is a student at Penn State University's Greater Allegheny campus, majoring in information science and technology. He never saw a computer before coming to the United States.

He hopes to become the first in his family to graduate from college. He became a U.S. citizen in December.

“Now I realize why it's known as the best and why everyone wants to come here,” Timsina said.

— Staff writer Stephanie Hacke

Guy DiSalvo: ‘You don't forget'

Guy DiSalvo was 5 when German troops swept through his hometown of Abruzzi, Italy, forcing people from their homes.

“They threw us out of the house,” said DiSalvo, 76, of Greensburg. “We had nothing. ... We drank water from the hoofprints the mules or horses made.”

World War II exacerbated living conditions in Italy that were difficult under fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

“You couldn't find a spoonful of sugar; I don't care how much money you had,” said DiSalvo, who came to the United States in 1957 with one suitcase and 50 cents in his pocket. Today he owns DiSalvo's Station restaurant in Latrobe.

“I kissed the ground when I got off the ship,” he said.

The Fourth of July holds special meaning for DiSalvo, who remembers American G.I.s who pushed the Germans from his town.

“To see American soldiers as a kid who is hungry — you don't forget. They gave you chocolate, or some clothes. You just don't forget.”

His family will gather to celebrate “one of the best days of the year, the birth of America, the day of independence,” he said.

Guy DiSalvo found work as a tailor at Kaufmann's in Pittsburgh and in the kitchens of restaurants.

“I did anything I could, as long as I worked,” he said. “In America, if you work, nobody stops you. The sky is the limit.”

— Staff writer Craig Smith

Henry Reese: Giving sanctuary

Freedom of speech is so ingrained in American life, it's easy to forget how lucky we are to have it, says Henry Reese.

“It is such a part of our DNA, it is impossible to imagine what it would be like if it didn't exist,” said Reese, founder and director of City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, a North Side group that gives sanctuary to politically oppressed writers from around the world.

Helping them is a job that seems directly related to Independence Day, even if it didn't start out that way, Reese said.

City of Asylum was inspired by a 1997 talk here by prize-winning author Salman Rushdie, who mentioned the work of such groups around the world. Today, Pittsburgh's is one of only three in the United States.

In the past 10 years it has given homes to five writers, providing them a way to make friends, find careers and establish lives.

One of the best parts of their life here is being able to express thoughts that might not be accepted or popular.

“This is not an abstraction,” Reese said. “Here, we can even tolerate intolerance.”

Such freedom provides an intellectual frontier into which we find room to grow, Reese said, comparing it to thoughts expressed in Walt Whitman's “Song of the Open Road.”

He mentioned a young student encountering that freedom at a workshop given by China's Huang Xiang, the first writer Pittsburgh's City of Asylum befriended.

The student asked through a translator why the writer had been imprisoned. It was for writing poetry.

“‘Writing poems?'” Reese quoted the young man as saying. “‘Man, I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't speak my mind.'”

— Staff writer Bob Karlovits

The Rev. Alexander Poshyvajlo: ‘Freedom, security, peace'

Born in Ukraine, the Rev. Alexander Poshyvajlo holds dear the freedoms many Americans take for granted.

“I thank God for living in this nation where we are personally free,” said Poshyvajlo, an Orthodox priest and rector of St. Michael Church in West Deer, where about 80 families worship.

“We have personal freedom, security and peace. That isn't the case in the world where dictators and tyrants refuse to provide freedom to others, but have it for themselves and those who are with them,” said Poshyvajlo, who came to the United States with his parents as a boy.

In Ukraine, forces continue to clash with pro-Russia separatists, and ceasefires have been broken in a conflict that has killed more than 400 people.

“I give thanks for every July Fourth in the U.S.,” Poshyvajlo said. “He who truly loves freedom should affirm it for his fellow man.”

Poshyvajlo has “absolutely has no interest” in returning to the place of his birth, but he prays for peace there.

Americans should be more vocal about the opportunities afforded them, he said.

“Every day should be the Fourth of July, and people should be grateful for our country.”

— Staff writer Chuck Biedka

Frank Kravetz: A special day

For Frank Kravetz, shot down over Germany on Nov. 2, 1944, captured and sent to a German POW camp, the Fourth of July is special.

“It's one of our great holidays,” said Kravetz, 90, of Chalfant. “Anything that's American and the U.S., I'm all for it.”

As a tail gunner on a B-17 bomber flying his sixth mission over Germany, his plane was attacked by Nazi Focke-Wulf 190 fighter planes. He shot one down but couldn't escape a second wave of fighters.

Enemy gunfire tore through the plane; 100 pieces of shrapnel dug into his legs.

“I saw the face of the pilot ... coming directly at me, 20 mm bullets blazing from his wing guns,” he writes in his book, “Eleven Two: One WWII Airman's Story of Capture, Survival and Freedom.”

Eleven Two signifies the date he was shot down.

Kravetz found himself at a hospital for POWs, where he “healed up some.” Then he was shipped to a POW camp for “forced marches and starvation.”

Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army liberated him on April 29, 1945.

After the war, Kravetz worked for Westinghouse Corp. for 45 years. He became a national director of the American Ex-Prisoners of War group.

“There aren't too many of us left,” he said. About 35 members remain in the Pittsburgh area from a group that once numbered “a couple of hundred.”

Still, Kravetz said he's happy to be alive and recognizes all patriotic holidays.

“My flag is out 24 hours a day,” he said.

— Staff writer Craig Smith

Irma Catalano: It's official

Irma Catalano took the oath of U.S. citizenship in April.

“Oh, my God, the Fourth of July means so much. ... We celebrate every year, but this year we celebrate more,” said Catalano, 65, of Harrison City, a mother of two children and grandmother of four.

“After my kids, the greatest day of my life was getting my citizenship,” she said. “I was so happy, I sent all the pictures back to Italy.”

Catalano came to America almost 50 years ago with a suitcase full of hope and little money.

“I didn't bring a lot with me,” she said.

She left Calabria in southern Italy when she was 17 and stayed with her uncle in Penn Hills.

Her parents pushed her to come to America for its opportunities: “My dad said, ‘You've got to go.'” The transition was rough.

“It was hard for me. All my family was over there. ... I didn't know the language,” she said. “I was crying for a couple of months.”

Then she made a friend, found a job and soon, started raising a family. As the kids grew, she started helping in the office of the construction business her immigrant husband, Frank, started and since turned over to the children.

“It really was the American Dream,” she said.

She put off pursuing citizenship because she was anxious about her ability to pass the test.

“People said, ‘Do it, do it.' My family finally pushed me.”

— Staff writer Craig Smith

Samuel Kumi: Struggle for a new life

For Samuel Kumi, the difference between freedom in America and in Ghana comes down to law.

“In one way, there's more freedom in Ghana than there is over here. America is a country of laws,” said Kumi, 42, of Monroeville, who immigrated at age 24 to be with his father, whom he hadn't seen since he was 6.

In Ghana, he said many police officers are corrupt, taking bribes from people who need help, in stark contrast to one of the things he loves about America.

“There's a whole lot of things you don't have to worry about (in America),” he said. “If you have a problem, you call the police. In Ghana, you have to walk to the police station to persuade them to look into your problems.”

Kumi works as a driver for Yellow Cab Pittsburgh on weekends and runs a shipping business to Ghana during the week. He hopes to write a book about how life in America is not always easy.

“We, as human beings, always have the tendency to think there's a greener pasture somewhere,” he said.

In Ghana, Kumi said many people dream of coming to America, believing that it will be a panacea to their troubles. He wants his book to investigate whether the migration is worth it.

“Don't get me wrong, I like this country,” he said. “But I was very lonely when I got here.”

Now, Kumi is grateful for the excellent education his sons are getting and for the safety his family has found in America.

Yet he wonders how different his life would be if he had waited to move until he had a profession.

“If I was making the decision today, knowing what I know, maybe I would think differently,” he said.

— Staff writer Megan Henney

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