Mother of Exiles

The New Colossus

Colossus of Rhodes
watching over a gateway to Greece

Mother of Exiles
watching over a
gateway to peace

"Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, with conquering limbs astride from land to land; here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command the air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she with silent lips. "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!"

- Emma Lazarus, 1883

The Context

Blind and sad, Prairie Johnson pleads with the park ranger to read the writing on a plaque she's been standing beside all day, waiting with lost hope that her father would appear. He does so kindly, on the condition she board the ferry to leave Ellis Island. The hour is late. The park is closing. This poignant moment in the Netflix series, "The OA," brings tears to my eyes.

My grandfather came to America through Ellis Island aboard a ship from Italy. I don't know what motivated his father to leave their homeland, but he clearly had a vision for a better life. Born in 1900, my grandfather, Papa, was six when he arrived on these shores. He was in his sixties when I formed my first clear memories of him, and in his eighties when he passed. Over those twenty years, his love of life and profound appreciation and gratitude for his family and home in West Virginia, sank deep into me. He called it "Little Italy," or more precisely, "Little It'ly." He deeply loved both his roots and his wings.

As I listened to the ranger read these words to Prairie, I wondered how it escaped me that our Statue of Liberty is descended from another in antiquity. One that also celebrated freedom, standing watch over the Greek harbor at Rhodes, not far from Papa's homeland. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." is commonly quoted. But these thirteen words don't do justice to the message of the full text emblazoned on the bronze plaque that welcomed immigrants to America, Mother of Exiles, for over sixty years. Moreover, I was struck by the absence in the common quote, of the final phrase that completes this thought, "...the wretched refuse of your teeming shore."

The Contrast

I am much more aware now of the impact our cultural heritage has on our lives and how we move through the world. It is foundational in ontological coaching, and I am tuned into this with my clients. I was moved by these words on many levels. As kids, we begged Papa to teach us to speak Italian. He refused. And he told us why. He was afraid we would develop an Italian accent. He feared for the discrimination he was sure would result. That was his experience and he would not risk that with his grandchildren. So we only learned one phrase from him, "capo melone," meaning "melon head." Yes, little kids can be dense and exasperating at times. Guilty.

Lately, I seem to be magnetized to the contrast between the best and worst of human nature between the world's cultures. I have been bombarded with "coincidences" that highlight the heroic exceptions within deep cultural prejudice, like the Greek connection this post has with my Putting the "Refuge" back into "Refugee" post several weeks ago.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!...
...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!"

These bolded words ripped a gash through my awareness.

The Call

A poet chooses words like a weaver chooses fiber, carefully to suit its purpose. Emma Lazarus chose her words to reflect the America she knew. Born into a large Jewish family in New York City, her American roots sank deep into German and Portuguese soil and included Benjamin N. Cardozo, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Cardozo exemplified both opportunity and justice, being appointed to the highest court by President Herbert Hoover to succeed Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Emma's ancestral opportunity to live her truth, to be a poet, to be herself, sailed on the same seas that, "tempest-tost," carried the human cargo of her day, people standing on the shores of countries whose privileged populations regarded them as just so much "wretched refuse" to be disposed of by any means possible. In Emma's day, that was typically by ship. Today, millions of men, women, boys and girls stand metaphorically on homeland shores but homeless now, their backs against a wall of apathy at best, and cruelty at worst.

Sixteen-year-old Noujain Mustaffa, the disabled, wheelchair-bound Syrian refugee from my previous post, was welcomed with her sister on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos. They climbed out of a rubber dinghy and into the spirit of the Colossus of Rhodes. There were kind, loving people there to greet them. People who saw Noujain and her sister not as human refuse, but as loving creations, like themselves, to be cared for.

I'm not suggesting we all leave our comfortable homes to go save the world, though some will. But I am suggesting that we can all participate in a shift. A shift in heart likened unto the New Colossus, the Mother of Exiles. A shift that leaves behind meaningless and divisive cultural distinctions. A shift that pushes aside prejudice. A shift that is braver and stronger than the fear that drives people into rubber dinghies to save their lives, and then shows up on the opposite shore to deny them refuge. We can be better than that. We can be stronger than that. We can love greater than that. Amen. Shalom. Namaste.