All four of my grandparents were immigrants. They arrived in New York City in the 1920s, in their late teens or early twenties, seeking better jobs, adventure, or true love. (Or so my grandmother thought, until she met and married somebody other than her brother’s best friend.) They all wanted lives that were better than what they experienced between the World Wars in their native countries.
Yet things weren’t all that terrible back home. Difficult, yes; but not life threatening.
Today we see the largest number of displaced people since the Second World War: 60 to 65 million (depending on which statistics you read) people fleeing war, oppression, even genocide. They risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean in rickety boats, or travel long distances on foot. In their eyes the risk is worth it, because to stay where they are is even greater risk of death.
And so I, too, traveled to a refugee camp–but not a real one. Doctors Without Borders (also known by its French name, Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF) had built a model refugee camp in Manhattan’s Battery Park City to show a little bit of what it’s like.
My walk took me past a view of Ellis Island, where 12 million immigrants (including some of my grandparents) made their first stop in the United States, and the statue in Battery Park memorializing immigrants who arrived in the United States via New York.
Our guide was Jim, a doctor who has worked with MSF in Africa and the Middle East. He walked up through tents set up as homes and medical facilities such as refugees might use.
Was it really like being in a refugee camp? Thank goodness, no! Only people who have experienced it could ever understand fully. But it was an informative and moving experience. If you’re in Boston, Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, I highly recommend a visit.
For more information about the refugee crisis, watch this video archive of a discussion that took place at Cooper Union on September 21: