I will never forget my first experience at Ellis Island many years ago. I struggled to connect. I was confused. My great-grandfather had passed through Ellis Island when he immigrated from Hungary. How could I not connect? This was my family’s story. As much as I tried to put myself in his shoes, I just couldn’t imagine what it was like to be an immigrant arriving in the United States. That is, until I saw the exhibit of immigrant possessions carried from home countries. Those objects brought the immigrant experience to life for me.
A woman’s vest from Macedonia and a Singer sewing machine purchased and carried to the United States from Scotland c. 1880s, National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM
In December I had the chance to meet with the Mark Storella, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the State Department.I wrote about it here. The day after this meeting I visited the Newseum where I saw the “Refugee” exhibit. The combination of these two experiences humanized the plight of refugees for me.
Like almost anyone, I need a connection. I need a narrative, an object, an experience to build understanding.
Tonight I started looking into refugee objects, searching for more connections. Many refugees leave with only minutes to pack. The objects they carry with them are a mixture of necessities, symbols of their heritage, family heirlooms. There is also a story in the objects left behind on journeys.