During our time away we had the opportunity to visit Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Despite growing up in the NYC suburbs, I don’t remember visiting these two locations. It was well worth braving the intense heat and crowds to pay tribute to the freedom that Lady Liberty represents and learn more about the journey many families took to experience that freedom for themselves.
Both my husband and I are children of immigrants, people who came legally seeking jobs and opportunity. We live in a culturally and racially diverse neighborhood, and many of our children’s friends have parents or grandparents who immigrated to America. This blending of cultures only enhances our experiences and our country.
Ellis Island has a wonderful exhibit on the immigrant experience, not just of those who were processed on the island itself, but all the people and groups that came to America from their homeland, whether voluntarily or otherwise, bringing parts of their culture with them. It was fascinating to see the diverse origins of our language, food, and music, and to read of the personal struggles and victories experienced by individuals arriving in a new land. We also enjoyed the air conditioning and comfortable seats during a movie about what newcomers faced upon arrival at Ellis Island, their fears and hopes. To sum it up, there was no air conditioning (or much heat) and no comfortable chairs for them. Just long lines, strange languages and questions, and the constant fear of being turned away and separated from your loved ones.
I was struck by how timely this exhibit and experience felt. Immigration is a hot topic in our culture today, and one that is playing a large role in the current election cycle. Looking through that exhibit provides a reminder of how our country was built by all kinds of people seeking to preserve a bit of their homeland while making a new life, how our language and music and food has been influenced and melded together with pieces from the whole globe. At least one of our current presidential candidates seems to have forgotten the history of this country and would benefit from a visit to this exhibit. But even as I thought it, I knew it would be lost on him. It wasn’t lost on me.
We arrived, sweltering, to Liberty Island and Lady Liberty herself. What struck me was the vast numbers of people of different cultures and nations walking around, taking selfies, posing for pictures with their hands held up to match hers. We heard at least six different languages being spoken. She is not just a symbol of freedom for our country, but for those who visit from foreign lands as well.
As we left Liberty Island, taking the ferry over to Manhattan, we had our own Ellis Island experience. We were jammed into crowded lines, being told by workers unwilling to meet anyone’s eyes to “fill in, fill in.” I felt more like cattle being herded than an individual American. Our eyes scanned ahead, calculating the odds of making it onto the next ferry or at least into the shaded portion of the waiting line. As the sun beat down on us, a kind Asian woman saw my husband holding a piece of paper over my head to create shade and offered us her subway map instead. We struck up a conversation, compared where we were from, complained about the heat, etc. Just as those arriving on Ellis Island must have done.
And soon enough it was over. We fought our way through the sea of people and found seats at the top of the ferry. It was still hot, but there was a breeze blowing. We sailed away from Lady Liberty and towards the One World Trade Center memorial, and found that the complex emotions stirred up by the story of multiculturalism and immigration now had a different focus. As we visited the memorial of an act based on fear and hatred, I felt again the sorrow that so many cannot see the humanity that is the same in all of us, regardless of where we’re from.
It was a hot but good day, full of good discussions with our kids, new experiences and good reminders of the importance of treating everyone with dignity and compassion. If you have the chance to visit these places, take it. Just try to avoid the hottest day of the year.
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