• Ami Yares, Executive Director

Ellis Island: From Whence We Came


On a lovely sun-drenched Saturday in September, BuildaBridge International coordinated a field trip to Ellis Island for clients of the Philadelphia Partnership for Resilience (PPR), Nationalities Services Center (NSC) and HIAS. The PPR is a partnership between the NSC, HIAS and BuildaBridge that serves individuals arriving to the United States who have endured torture in their country of origin or of most recent residence. Alongside these survivors were also refugees that the NSC and HIAS serves. Twenty-nine people in total traveled in chartered bus to Liberty State Park where we would embark on a short boat ride to Ellis Island and experience the history of 19th and 20th century immigration to the United States.

On the island, our plans included lunch and being guided by the highly invented and participatory Charactours, a partnership between the seasoned tour guide Jon Goldstein of Cicerone Travel and Andrew Davies, a veteran actor and playwright. Charactours’ mission is to connect “audiences to individuals from all walks of life through interactive theatrical walking experiences to engage with characters from history that might serve as an example of the great issues of our day.” Our trip to Ellis Island could not have been a greater example of what Charactours and BuildaBridge strive to achieve. In addition to the tour, the BuildaBridge Artist-on-Call Ran Hua and I planned a post-tour program featuring a fine arts and music-based activity.

I have to admit that as a new executive director to a two-decade young non-profit organization, a significant amount anxiety clouded my joy at the prospects of the trip despite the preparedness of the BuildaBridge staff. Logistics, safety, participation, etc. spun around my head in circles.

So many things could go wrong.

First and foremost, our participants needed to travel upwards of an hour on public transportation to arrive at our Center City meet-up point. Despite RSVPs and commitments, I was worried that travel issues or extenuating circumstances beyond my control or our participants’ control would prevent participation. What if we lost someone? What if someone became ill?

With all of my reservations, I am happy to report that I was wrong -- very wrong.

By 8:15am, five of us waited for the bus. Then at 8:40, twenty people stood and waited for the bus. Five minutes later, we stood twenty-nine in number and ready to board the bus to Liberty State Park where would embark on a brief “cruise” to Ellis Island. Like every BuildaBridge program, Ran and I taught and sang our introductory song that levels the playing ground for English as a second language speakers to participate with mother-tongue English speakers. The simplicity, participatory and musical energy of the song invites people to join together and slowly, the bonds of community begin to form -- names are learned, homelands are shared and laughter is made. The BuildaBridge motto follows the song in which all of the participants and staff recite, together, and help project audibly the values we hold important and collectively. We end the motto acknowledging that we all deserve a good life.

When was the last time you told yourself or somebody else that they should have the good life they deserve?

As deceivingly simple as it is to say the sentence, it is even harder in troubled times to believe -- but it is in this recitation, we hope to set the groundwork for a positive vision of the future that is the core of BuildaBridge’s work.

Fast forwarding past the highly trafficked trip up the New Jersey turnpike, the lightly swaying boat ride to the island and the casual lunch, our tour began with Jon Goldstein introducing the island to us under the shade of a tree with the Statue of Liberty in the background. The participants crowded around Jon, catching his words and following his finger in the direction of Freedom Tower (where stood the Twin Towers) across the way at Battery Park, to the Statue Liberty and lastly to the main hall of Ellis Island. At the entrance to the building, a three-year old Russian Jewish immigrant joined us, portrayed by CharacTours’ Andrew Davies! This of course took our participants by surprise as they met Andrew prior to the trip to Ellis Island. Andrew’s prior introduction and candor distinguished itself from his portrayal of the tour’s first character.

Andrew recounted the story of Jewish immigration in the late 19th century and early 20th century in which tens of thousands of Jewish families immigrated to the United States to escape persecution, forced conscription and deep poverty. They hoped that the new world’s “gold-paved” streets would lead the path to wealth and security. Andrew and Jon spoke to the participants about their preconceived notions of life in the United States and many participants shared the challenges they face on a regular basis to survive and succeed in “the land of the opportunity.” They knew first-hand that the streets of America were not gold-paved. (One exhibit referenced this: the streets of America were not paved with gold, nor paved for that matter--that was the job for the immigrant.)

Other characters followed the tour, Andrew portrayed an Irish immigrant who journeyed to the United States to escape famine but upon arrival experienced racism and oppressive work conditions. Luckily, the immigrant featured in the story found family who could help him settle and find employment. After hearing this story, Jon guided the group through an exhibit about the historic controversy immigrants faced when settling in the states. Images illustrated the story of anti-immigration sentiments that encouraged Americans to fear and hate the foreigners coming to the United States. This struck a chord in the faces of the participants, many nodding in agreement about the comparisons today to the federal immigration policy and aversion to immigrants from Muslim-populated countries and general unfriendly gestures to residence of the United States from foreign countries.

In the welcoming hall, Andrew acted out the role of a nurse who long ago would use a special coding to identify immigrants with medical issues that could pose a threat to the non-immigrant US population. Jon described the coding the participants. He noted that even after surviving the tremendously taxing boat ride to the US, a potential immigrant could be turned away and led down the “separation stairs,” a stairway that led the way either to a future in America or the potential of being turned away and back across the sea to Europe.

The participants also met the famed US mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, a son of a Jewish mother and Italian father, who worked at Ellis Island welcoming immigrants to their new homeland. A speaker of five languages, LaGuardia worked at Ellis Island in the daytime and took classes at New York University to be a lawyer. LaGuardia desired greatly to see a better United States and his first steps at Ellis Island were pivotal in seeing his vision met.

Lastly the participants rested in the lawn outside the main building, listening to the blaring of boat horns Jon’s closing remarks about Ellis Island and possibilities that awaited immigrants on the island of Manhattan and beyond. Sophie Tucker, also portrayed by Andrew, sang to the group and recounted her rise from rags to riches via the lights of vaudeville. Though Sophie’s story is an exception to the countless hardships and defeats that America’s’ immigrants faced, it still is an inspiring story that, if not stardom, one could still find success in the United States.

On our return to the mainland, we shared in the joy of sailing pass the Statue of Liberty and taking pictures of this amazing beacon of hope and freedom. I could only think to myself that though the statue’s iron construction has mainly stood the test of time, the values that Lady Liberty represent face the often changing immigration policies that threaten to undermine the great history of American immigration with xenophobic values espoused by ethnocentric and racist ideologies. I can only hope that BuildaBridge played a role that strengthened our participants’ resolve to stem the tide of hatred that has befallen the United States and focus on enacting and achieving a hope-infused vision of the future.

When we disembarked from the boat, we entered into the old train station and sat together as a group accompanied by the skeletons of old railroad tracks at our backs. Here is where Ran and I decided to run the final piece of our program, a drawing and singing activity. The activity began with a brief introduction to the old Shaker song, “Simple Gifts,” which since its composition in 1848 has become a part of the American folk song patheon. Participants identified with the paradox of freedom’s simplicity and the complexity of finding it. Hearing the words “love” and “delight” helped give the participants a sense of the text’s positivity. Ran followed the text by encouraging the group to sit and draw in quiet meditation. I added by suggesting drawing from the heart and not the head. The group then took to the crayons, colored pencils, and markers; they began to create.

Twenty-five minutes passed and images emerged of the participants’ once blank pages. We saw pictures of people, houses, hands, the Statue of LIberty and faces. Ran assembled the group and we began to process. Participants shared at will and recounted the day and how they felt that they had come together and were introduced to new people, previously unknown. They spoke of finding freedom and the struggle to seek success in their new homes. They spoke of their transformation from states of fear to states of happiness.

It was truly touching to hear these words spoken and shared in such a positive manner.

We concluded our time at Liberty State Park by singing “Simple Gifts.” In same way we hope the BuildaBridge motto creates a positive foundation by the act of speaking and hearing, I hoped that the words of “Simple Gifts” sang to the participants and this humble introduction to this folk song gave each and everyone a sense of belong that could be a key to feeling a part of American society.

On the bus ride home, the voices of the participants fell quiet. People looked from the seats at the passing landscape and scenery, others shut their eyes and went quietly to sleep with the lull of the bus’ motor and wheels along the New Jersey Turnpike’s pavement. I knew in the silence that we had achieved a great moment today. I hope that the sense of wellbeing, happiness and community felt by all and especially the participants can carry on in the hopeful vision of the future that we seek to inspire with the work of BuildaBridge.

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