A travelling exhibit from Dearborn, documenting the experiences of Iraqi and Syrian refugees and immigrants is being showcased at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration until Labor Day.
“What We Carried: Fragments and Memories from Iraq and Syria” tells the stories of families and individuals that sought refuge and safety in the United States after fleeing the Iraq war in 2003, and the war in Syria beginning in 2010.
Beginning in 2010, photographer and creator of the project Jim Lommasson captured pictures of the items and asked their owners to write on the photograph about the object(s).
It was made into a traveling exhibit after it was showcased at the Arab American National Museum in 2016. Since then. the exhibit has travelled to libraries, museums, and universities in Houston, Los Angeles, Jacksonville, Atlanta, and several other cities.
“We worked closely with Jim to make [the exhibit] into a format that other venues can easily host,” says curator of exhibits at the Arab American National Museum, Elizabeth Barret-Sullivan.
Lommasson says he hopes the exhibit builds compassion and empathy in visitors.
“This is not just about what you might take with you, it’s ‘what are you leaving behind?’ And that’s everything else. Your home, your school, your university, your job, your culture, your language, and that’s really the bigger question and realization,” says Lommasson.
It’s the second exhibit to make it to Ellis Island from the Arab American National Museum; the first being Little Syria in 2016.
“We were fortunate that [the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration] felt it fit with their mission, first and foremost, of telling immigrant stories and stories about immigration,” says Barret-Sullivan.
Judy Giuriceo, curator of exhibits and media at the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island, said they were excited to work with the Arab American National Museum again.
“[What We Carried] echoes the theme of the permanent ‘Treasures from Home’ exhibit in the Ellis Island museum, which is in close proximity to the changing exhibit space and contains items Ellis Island immigrants brought from their homelands,” said Giuriceo.
She says Ellis Island averages close to one million visitors between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Giuriceo took three elementary school students and their teachers on a tour of the exhibit before it opened because they showed interest.
“They expressed the sadness some of the photos made them feel and thought about what they would bring with them,” she said.
Rawda Haboush, 40, visited the exhibit on May 28, three days after it opened.
"I'm very, very happy," she said in Arabic in response to how she feels about the exhibit. "I didn't imagine that I would see this exhibit here."
Haboush lives in California after immigrating from Syria 13 years ago.
"I was especially happy to see some history about the Circassian Syrians, which is what my husband identifies as," she says.
Lommasson says most Americans expect to see tea cups, candleholders and other items related to an Arab identity.
“But then when we see something like Barbie dolls, we realize, wait a minute, maybe those people that have been othered and demonized and caught up in the travel bans, maybe they’re not so different."