Forced from Home

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.

Credit: UNHCR website,

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.

Interior of a model refugee tent at the Forced from Home exhibit, September 2016.

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.

Ellis Island as seen from Manhattan
The Immigrants stands in Battery Park near Castle Clinton.

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.

Our guide, Jim. In the tent behind him you can see bed nets to protect against malaria and other mosquito-borne illnesses.

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:


2 thoughts on “Forced from Home

  1. Timothy (Tim) Riecker October 17, 2016 / 10:29 am

    Great piece, Karen. My family has a similar history, with my grandfather emigrating from Poland through Ellis Island after WWII and even other members of my family escaping WWI Germany. The city closest to wear I live, Utica, NY, is a city of immigrants, not only in the past, but with new populations arriving regularly through a US State Department program. The New York Times did a great article a couple years ago:

    The refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe is often dismissed in the US because it’s out of sight and out of mind. Unfortunately, in the discussion of immigrants relocating to the US, current isolationist politics seem to have the louder voice. The US is a nation of immigrants – it’s unfortunate that people forget their own roots, and the desperation many of their own ancestors had when they came to the US.

    Organizations like Doctors Without Borders and others, including the UN (an organization which I’m generally not a fan of – but they help refugees significantly), work tirelessly to simply help people survive. These aren’t permanent solutions, though. Every one of these individuals and families deserves a better shot at life.



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