Portraits of Immigrants and Refugees in Paint and in Print
From the storyboards:
“We had eight robberies in one year! Every day you didn’t know who [would] show up with the guns.”
“America is the most wonderful place in the world! First, being safe is priceless. That’s the best feeling. And New York City, you have all types of food, accents! You walk down the street and you smell curry, basil, olive oil, and Chinese, Japanese, I love it! This mix is wonderful.”
“We’re calling her 'Angel' because she is undocumented and could be deported, although she is known locally for good works."
"When you get outside the major cities, they say to girls, ‘You’ll get married. You don’t need school. Be with your mother. Learn to cook and clean.’ ” And when these women come here, they are totally lost..I teach people to read."
“There was nothing in the stores. It was difficult to get food; we couldn't get meat or butter and had to stand in long lines.”
"Her nursing degree and all of her work experience in Poland counted for nothing in the U.S!"
"He was the youngest of fifteen children in his family in Bogotá. His mother got up before dawn to cook traditional snack foods to sell, along with eggs from the backyard, and sometimes even chickens, to help make ends meet."
"He sent $15 a month back to his mother, which continued for many months, to pay for his plane ticket."
They all piled into an aunt’s house in suburban Long Island, New York. “Nine extra people was a very tight squeeze,." With his parents earning only $40/week, John knew he would have to help support them all.
"Chinese, Jewish, from Africa — same world, same job, same opportunity. That’s what will make the whole world peaceful.”
"Facing hungry children, she was confronted with an ugly choice: become a prostitute -- the only way a woman there could earn sufficient money to support a family -- or leave the country."
Her green card...arrived ...only a week after I'd finished her portrait. She immediately booked a flight to Guatemala to visit and hug the children she hadn't touched in twenty years and grandchildren she'd never seen.
“We didn’t know where she was; we thought she was working on a church mission in Haiti.” They soon learned that their mother “had been exiled” by the military...
“They [other kids] called us ‘stupid’ because we couldn’t converse…They bullied us and beat us up.”
He flew halfway around the world to become a veterinarian. Their mother and the girls stayed behind, shuttling between grandparents. Three years later, their mother flew off to join their father. Three years later, when she was nine, Rekha and her sister, dressed in traditional clothes, were put on an airplane for the first time.
Weekdays were for a very Western life, but on weekends we lived a traditional Indian life at home.” We spoke English outside and Hindi at home, “so we didn’t forget where we came from.”
The principal finally said if I could get her there in three days, they would grant her an audition. “I called her and said, ‘We’re going to America in three days; you have to learn three monologues and you have to be brilliant!’ “
As soon as he arrived at JFK, he called the New York agent and said, “I’m here, I’m ready to work.” The agent replied that he’d just retired.
Laura was able to apply for the Deferred Act for Childhood Arrivals (the DACA program), which gave her a Social Security number and the chance to apply for a job with a salary, benefits, vacation time and days off — “things I’d never heard of.”
Without a B.A., if deported, her family wouldn't have the means to keep her brother alive. It takes a month there to earn what she sends them every week from here.
“We were born into an ultra competitive environment with a scarcity of opportunity... and the pipeline to get to the next level very tight. At a young age I would have piano lessons and karate lessons and pre-kindergarten."
“One of the most traumatic experiences that shaped my views, and why I decided to pursue public service, was seeing my parents go through bankruptcy when I was going into high school — just shutting down the store and having to borrow masses of money from anyone — family, cousins — and working for years just to pay back the debt to get to square one.”
"I was two-years-old when my mother brought me here in 1991. The Somali Civil War had started; everybody was fighting everybody. My mother had to flee Somalia in order not to be killed."
...he got a long, tough grilling from two U.S. officers until they came to realize that he doesn’t hate this country. “How could I? How could I go against someplace that took my mother in when she was fleeing from harm? And go against where I was raised? It’s part of my fiber.” He just wanted to come back and go to college.
“His ideas and knowledge were not what they wanted. He was given two choices: either go into a mental institution, or leave the country...but we (Ukrainians) were not allowed to leave. ..he had to pay thousands of dollars to a Jewish family to marry a woman and go with her, because Jews were the only people allowed to leave. He had to divorce my mother and sell her jewelry to raise the money.
It’s very easy to start something here, as long as you have ability you can do it. And you need stamina. Back there, there is no security. ..no life insurance, no medical insurance, your money is up in the air. You have $10,000 in the bank, and it’s not there tomorrow.
Both parents were high school teachers whose dual salaries had given them more than enough money to raise eight children until 1,000% inflation hit and they struggled to put food on the table.
The lack of discrimination here, is also a huge plus for Myo. He’s Karen, from a Burmese ethnic minority. “I know what discrimination is!”
We lived in Kabul at the heart of the battle — a city divided into sections by political parties, ideologies, and ethnic groups, each fighting to take over. I was raised, not on the sounds of music, but the sounds of guns, rockets and bombs.
Then locals like us, who were working with Americans, simply disappeared. The Taliban was still there, hiding in shadows. They were hunting us. Some even changed clothes and worked in the new government; you couldn’t be sure whom you could trust.
Portraits of Immigrants is now traveling uptown to The Riverside Church, where it will open March 6th and be on view through April 22nd.
© COPYRIGHT Betsy Ashton 2019.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.