I pick up the phone and the voice is already speaking. He says that he was born in Antwerp, Belgium, that his mother’s family, a clan of Orthodox Jews, is from Hungary and his father’s side is from [the former] Czechoslovakia and Romania. The man further explains the roundabout route he took to get to the United States: growing up in England with his mother after his parents’ divorce, he eventually reunites with his father here. His story ends. Another man begins speaking in a more heavily accented English, talking about coming to New York “because of Boko Haram.” He misses his wife and his two children—a boy and a girl—but he says he has freedom. “I’m black,” he says, “but I have freedom.”
I’m standing in a public piazza just south of the TKTS booth in Times Square, listening to the stories of immigrants that are looped into repurposed phone booths for the Once Upon a Place project developed by the Paris-based, Afghan-American artist Aman Mojadidi with the support of Times Square Arts. The day that I visit the exhibition, it’s almost 90°F [32°C], so standing in one of the three phone booths that are like person-sized metal and plastic baking tins, I’m grateful I can leave the door open a bit to let the breeze in. It’s hot but I stay because the stories are riveting.
There are no names. Each person just begins speaking as if responding to a prompt or an interlocutor who stays invisible. One woman describes how she arrived here, by way of marriage to a US citizen, though now they are separated. She laments that she has not attained even the equivalent of a high school education because, as she says “Africans don’t believe that school is for girls.” She describes herself as an uneducated single mother with five children, and I begin to build a picture of her as indigent, struggling. Yet, she surprises me, obliges me to questions those assumptions. She adds, at the end to her narrative, that all the children are in college.
It is strange listening to the stories as I stand in a public square overrun with tourists seemingly from all over the world, as I hear the voices of those who have chosen to stay. The square is teeming but the voices inside the booths are quiet and steady—yet at times contradictory. It has been said that we humans live in our contradictions. These speakers prove that. One man says he is “proud to be a global citizen and proud to be an American as well.” I would not have thought it possible to be both. Another man says that he finds it strange here because in his [African] country of origin the large family that consists of several generations and cousins “sleep together and wake together … and share everything.” Yet despite this truncation of his sense of familial life, he is grateful to be in the US. I imagine if I asked him why he migrated to the US, he would tell me that it was to make a better life for his family.
There are 70 stories each lasting between 2 and 15 minutes, but the reasons given for their journey to the US can often sound similar. Through a translator, a Tibetan woman describes being lucky enough to have been selected for a program that sponsored 1,000 Tibetans that were being persecuted by the Chinese to come to America. She says “everything is good here in terms of health and cleanliness,” and she thanks the government for freedom of speech. One person who identifies as queer relates what their father once said to them: “I was tear-gassed by the age of nine because I grew up in Apartheid.”
The reasons repeat because the socio-political circumstances that impel migrants to come here, just as my parents did in the late 1970s still persist: poverty, fascism, governmental corruption, ethnic, religious, and gender-based persecution. Once Upon a Place is necessary and timely intervention in the public conversation on immigration. It’s a work that’s needed now when the senior White House policy adviser Stephen Miller has disavowed the symbolic welcome inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” I listened to these stories, hearing for myself why migrants are still desperate to hear such a welcome.
Once Upon a Place continues at Duffy Square (47th Street and 7th Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through September 5.