L. and M. and their two blond preschool sons have escaped, after years of stealthy planning and saving and months of waiting.

Not the gaunt East European urchins we expect, they step off the plane as if from the pages of Family Circle, self-conscious in our applause, the little boys in Velcro sneakers, M. movie-star pretty, L. grinning, gregarious, protective, dazzled. They wear their best for us; everything else is stowed in one large suitcase, less than I’d take myself for a weekend in Minneapolis.

Traveling light, they leave behind a wrenching trail of jetsam: family, friends, everyday familiarity. But they are free and safe at last.

Through an interpreter (in this case, my husband’s mother, who never told me she was fluent in her parents’ language), L. and M. try to express their wonder at everything that has been done for them, given to them. A small basket of apples? Ah, they are rare and expensive hack home. Would the boys like coloring books and crayons? Please, the boys are fine, they have plenty. (But where is it all?) A loaned sewing machine so that M. can alter the clothes that have been given to the family? Shy M. can only beam and nod.

Two days after their arrival, we sit in their hot, crowded living room on folding chairs. Jet-lagged and culture-shocked, M. hovers, flits, brews coffee, sets out saltines in a ceramic candy dish—all we have stocked her cupboards with that might be remotely suitable for American guests. Another visitor, Y., a.refugee who came here two years ago and acts as their appointed translator, says, “In Communist countries, people have wrong idea about United States. All we hear is California”—he pauses and looks at us meaningfully; we catch his drift—”New York, Detroit. They don’t tell us that here is such a nice life, so many kind people.” (In spite of our bad press abroad, we are still the best there is; they are dying to come here.) Yes, all three of them are absolutely floored by American kindness, says Y. L., who has understood a little of Y.’s speech in English, nods his assent, looks around at his odds-and-ends furniture from our basements and attics, at his small sons whom we have clothed in “Masters of the Universe” sweatsuits from K-Mart, at us, his refuge, new masters of his universe.

A man to my left—local son of Old World parents who, with his equally bilingual wife, came to welcome the newcomers and act as translator (there are now more translators in the room than people to need them)—notes how charming it is to hear little children speaking the old language, something only grandparents do in private here and now. My mother-in-law jokes to L. that she and my husband’s father never taught the language to their children because they wanted to use it to keep secrets from the kids. L. smiles, only a little pensively, and says that now he and his wife will be able to do the same thing with their boys.

I can’t help myself—it must be done, like tonguing a raw loose tooth—and I have someone ask L. what it was like in his country, how he managed to get out. He’s energetic in his description, sits on the edge of his chair, glad to tell us everything in an avalanche of soft foreign sounds; the roomful of translators hasn’t a prayer. Open complaint is 90-proof luxury for tired L., and he savors it. I know what he’s saying without a translator: the stories are always the same, with never an interesting twist. I feel silly for asking—how naive he must think me!—but he’s safe now, surrounded by new friends, warm and eager to give us something, to let us know how wonderful we are, and he can’t be stopped. Perhaps every successful escape is, after all, as unique as a first love, and makes its narrator proud and shivery with remembrance.

Does it seem long ago and far away to L., now that he has seen a supermarket and two days of American television? I listen to the snow-soft cataract of words, watch M. watching him and nodding, and am moved to uneasy, throat-constricting tenderness. L. and M. are smitten, wrapped in our lavish American generosity, wildly in love with us all. What will happen when they learn that we’re not as ignorant as we seem, that our failure to help them in their homeland—and to protect our own—is intentional? They are a mountain-sized boulder in the path of our disbelief in the inherent badness of Communism (which we treat like a kinky, harmless religion); what will happen when they-learn that our will to disbelieve is strong enough to let us walk around them?

If we are lucky, they will love us still. Like Tinkerbell, who dies if no one is left who believes in fairies, we will become corrupt and paralyzed once the world believes we are. Oh, L. may grow tired, after a while, of telling his story to people who have had ineffable freedom from birth and are still unshocked, unworried, unmoved to action by the evidence of his life (he came here to save his children; what will he see us doing for ours?). Or, worse, he may grow bitter when he learns English well enough to understand our nightly newscasters’ bland implications that he risked his family’s torture, imprisonment, and death to run from an evil that doesn’t exist, from civilized gentlemen who just want to be friends.

But if Americans are kind, the multitude who risk it all to come here (where they’ve heard we’re bullish on human worth) are the world’s most patient souls. Adversity can have that effect. I think I’m compelled to question every refugee and emigre I meet because their predictable willingness, the innocent hope in their tales of horror, comfort me: the tortured people in the world still believe in us, no matter how ill-founded that belief Perhaps we can still deserve it. I’ll stop my questions the first time a refugee from Communism hisses at my query and snaps, “Why should I tell you what it’s like? Are you deaf and blind? Can’t you read? Our suffering is not for your entertainment. You will do nothing to help us, ever, or to save yourselves, and you are as dead as we.”

Because on that day, when the last believers have fallen away, the words he speaks will be true.