“Mother of Exiles”

This is where this chapter, the chapter we know the most about, begins:

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome;

Emma Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus” in 1883 for a literary auction to raise money for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Twenty years later, sixteen after the death of Lazarus in Brooklyn, the sonnet was inscribed on a plaque and placed inside the pedestal at the base of the statue.

Four years later, on October 30th, 1907, my great-grandfather entered the United States. He, a seven year old from Belarus, and his grandmother, nearly blind from macular degeneration, were two of more than twelve million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954.

L: Morris Resnik’s daybook from 1920, marking his 13 years in the USA — R: Morris (bottom right) and Frieda (to his right, wearing the dress with the frilled collar) Resnik — Photos courtesy Robert Resnik

Time passes. Morris and his wife Frieda start their family in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The poverty of the great depression and the horror of World War II are still years away.

Meanwhile, in Burlington, Vermont, two other sets of great grandparents are starting businesses and families, recently arrived from Ireland and Belarus. They run a car repair business and a corner store on opposite sides of the small town.

Generations pass. My parents meet in Burlington. My dad is repairing musical instruments and my mom is working at the community gardens, supervising young Burlingtonians and other teens settled in Burlington by the recently opened USCRI/Refugee Resettlement Program.

My mom supervised a gardening program for the Burlington Youth Employment Program — photo courtesy Maureen Cannon, news story from the Burlington Free Press

Eighty one years, to the day, after Morris Resnik arrived at Ellis Island, my parents were married in Vermont. My brother and I grow up in a Burlington strikingly different from the one our grandmothers experience. We grew up going to school with students from Bosnia, Somalia and Sudan. I helped out in Head Start classes for kids, younger than ten, who had spent the majority of their lives in refugee camps. These young kids were now translating for their parents and navigating the complexity of a new home.

World-wide welcome, the promise that brought my family across the Atlantic, remains vital in small towns and large cities across the country. According to the NYC department of city planning, over 3 million of New York City’s residents are foreign-born and over half of all New Yorkers speak a language other than English at home. Recent research found “there are more than 270 publications that serve the immigrant and minority populations in the city, published in 36 languages.”

City agencies coordinate tremendous programs and projects, ranging from education to job creation, across the city. This month I’ll be following up on a report about how the city advertises in the ethnic press. There appears to be a gap between what information the city is intending to send out and the people who could be benefiting from city programs.

Mural by JR — Photo by Max Resnik

JR’s mural of children at Ellis Island, near my work in Chinatown, is a reminder of where I come from and the importance of the work that needs to happen.