I actually felt embarrassed as we headed toward the museum exit. It was my first afternoon with the Kurdish family my congregation is helping to resettle in Westchester. I brought them to the Neuberger museum at SUNY Purchase to show off a great cultural institution and college campus in Westchester County. A campus construction project detracted from the beauty outside. Inside, it seemed, a good part of the collection lay under black shrouds. So much for a great cultural experience; it was embarrassing.
“When will the exhibit upstairs open?” I politely asked the museum receptionist on the way out.
“It is open, sir,” he patiently explained. “We have many pieces in our collection created by immigrants. The artist took those pieces, put them on display, and then covered them with black cloth. It shows what would be missing from our collection –- from the art of America -– if those immigrants had not been allowed into our country.”
How poignant. How perfect. What would these new residents of America add to our nation’s collection? How would they build upon the work of all the immigrants who came before them?
I had picked them up late that morning at their apartment in White Plains. “I heard that you haven’t had pizza,” I said incredulously. “You’re in New York! Come on, we’re going to Sal’s.” On the drive to Mamaroneck we talked about the million moving parts of settling in a new country. The father described his job search. In Iraq he translated for the US Army, the UN and NGOs. He wants to do translation work here, too. The son described the very funny little old lady teaching his GED class and how he’d like to work in a video game store. The daughter has already picked up a lot of English from her ESL classes as she clearly understood everything we said, laughing at jokes, and easily answering questions about her classes.
“I’ve noticed,” the father said once we had ordered and sat down, “that many bathrooms in America say ‘mens’. That doesn’t make any sense. They either need an apostrophe or it should just say ‘men’.” In 39 years of going to public bathrooms I had never noticed. But with fresh eyes he saw our grammatical shortcomings right away.
“Besides bathroom signs, what else has surprised you about America? What is different than you expected?” All three agreed that they met more kindness than they ever could have expected. From people on the street in downtown White Plains to the members of our congregation who are helping them settle in, they cannot believe how nice everyone is. “I thought it would be like you see on TV shows about New York City,” the son said, “but everyone is so friendly.”
With all the stress of immigration. With all the pressure to find work. With the inevitable challenges of a new land and language and culture, simple kindness has made the biggest impression on our nation’s newest residents.
Later in the day I sat with the father sipping tea and talking about his experience as an interpreter in Iraq, the threats to his family, life as a refugee in Turkey, and the joy they felt when the US consulate gave them the visas to emigrate. I shared with him how our congregation came to be involved with his family. The desire to do something to help the refugees of the world that concretized in a partnership with the refugee resettlement experts at HIAS to help a family find safety in Westchester. “The Jews,” I explained to him, “spent most of the last 2,000 years as refugees. The least we can do is to help the refugees of today.”
Bridging a gulf of culture and background, over a cup of tea, we talked about what might be for his family, about the ways that they will build lives, about America’s opportunity and freedom, and about the contributions that they will make. Earlier that morning at the Neuberger we could not see the sculptures beneath the shrouds. But the haze that obscures this family’s future has begun to lift. I feel honored to help in my small way. I feel humbled to lead a congregation who believes in the promise of America and her immigrants.