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  • Zein Hassanein

Ellis Island: Connecting Our Future with our Past

On November 3, 2018, Philadelphia Partnership for Resilience and Buildabridge hosted a field trip to Ellis Island. 35 members of Philadelphia's immigrant community were able to hear and connect to the stories of the immigrants that came many years before them, and participate in a collaborative art-making experience led by two Buildabridge teaching artists. Here is an account of one of our staff members' experience of that day:

When I signed on to co-lead a trip to Ellis Island, bringing along a group of refugees from West Africa and the Middle East, I was excited and nervous. As someone who grew up outside of the U.S., I was aware of just what Ellis Island and Lady Liberty meant, as a symbol for opportunity through immigration, though I had never been there myself. I was eager to visit the Wall of Honor, where my own father's immigration story was etched roughly 30 years ago. My apprehension came from my own insecurities: would I be able to communicate with the families that attended the trip? Would they understand why they were there? Would the art-making experience planned by my co-facilitator, Alaa, be received?

"I was eager to visit the Wall of Honor,

where my own father's immigration story

was etched roughly 30 years ago."

The bus ride up to New York was over before we knew it and the energy was bustling as the Statue of Liberty came into view. One of the trip participants, a 70-year-old Egyptian man, began to tell the story of the statue to a Syrian young woman who was there with her family. "Did you know that she was designed after the traditional clothing of Egyptian village women? The artist was French and he became inspired on a trip to Egypt." As I listened, I heard my own father in this man's words, his passion, his motivations for leaving home to come to the U.S. in pursuit of a better lie for himself and his family.

I was thankful for the adaptive way in which the tour was designed, allowing for the participants to ask questions to an actor who played real people who would have passed through the arrival halls at Ellis Island. One very special moment of clarity happened for a twelve-year-old child from Syria. After taking in the many stories, he said to our tour guide ““but they still don’t like the people who come to America!” In that moment, he realized that current patterns of discrimination against immigrants aren’t much different than those from one hundred years ago,

After a long day, we took 30 minutes on the bus to reflect on the experience and engage in some personal art-making. Alaa asked participants to reflect on the trip and how what they saw affected their own views of the immigrant experience. I was impressed how quickly everyone engaged with their art, young and old. When we stepped off the bus in Philadelphia, I felt like I had known the participants for months. As we each went our separate ways, and the sun began to set, the lyrics of Marc Cohn's Ellis Island were swirling around in my head:

Now me I only stumbled in

Just to wander around that empty hall

Where someone else's fate had been

Decided in no time at all

And cases filled with hats and clothes

And the belongings of those who journeyed far

They're strange reminders I suppose

Of where we're from and who we are

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