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31 July 2019

Personal Story: Finding my family at Ellis Island

These places honour the history of the migrant spirit. I wouldn’t have existed to read that unlikely graffiti without it.

By Anoosh Chakelian

New York in the rain is different from London. There’s just more of it, for one thing, and no pubs to duck into in pursuit of cosiness. Walking seems to take longer, along gridded street by gridded street, and water cascades from skyrises like glass-and-steel waterfalls.

It was wet on my trip to the city last November. Four days in, my boyfriend and I felt our enthusiasm for sightseeing dampen. There are only so many jugs of diner coffee you can endure just to sit down in the dry between hastily Google-Mapped locations.

So we very nearly didn’t go to Ellis Island.

I already knew the story: this was the place where immigrants would first arrive on their journey to the United States, finally seeing the Statue of Liberty appear on the horizon. I knew the symbolism of the old inspection station for a country so often described as “built by immigrants”. Would queuing for a wind-lashed ferry, with hundreds of tourists in transparent ponchos like human evidence bags, really tell me anything new?

Despite our hangovers and sodden shoes, we braved the crossing. Our ferry pulled up to a squat, neo-Renaissance red-brick complex, complete with domed towers, triple-arched entrances and opulent window frames: the same palatial view encountered by migrants arriving as early as 1900.

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The Great Hall, where thousands waited to be processed every day, stands huge and empty. Walking through it, beneath the 60-foot vaulted ceiling and Star-Spangled Banners, the silence (broken only by the squeak of trainers) amplifies a sense of the mayhem the hall would once have housed. Immigrant stories are contained within its walls. Centuries-old graffiti is etched into columns, lumps of plaster and wooden windowsills. A few fragments have been preserved, now protected by a layer of glass. Names, dates, odes to home towns, doodles of boats. Some anguished messages (“Damned be the day that I left my homeland and country” writes one Italian immigrant), some bland (“If there were no mosquitoes, one would probably be healthier,” grumbles a Hungarian), and some familiar (“Women make men suffer because they are venomous” – another Italian).

But the first Ellis Island graffiti I read was more personal. Peering at one unlabelled chunk of wall, bearing neat lettering in full sentences and precise lines, my stomach lurched. It was in Armenian, marked 1901.

Decorated in the top left corner with a drawing of a bird with a long pointy beak, and what looked like a pomegranate tree – the fruit of Armenia – in the top right, I could make out the first word: “Sireli”, meaning “dear”. It’s the Armenian word I probably write the most, in all letters and emails to address my relatives who are scattered around the world – and, until I lost him last July, in birthday and Father’s Day cards to my dad.

Of the 12 million immigrants that passed through Ellis Island, this one Armenian was, 118 years later, speaking to me – the descendent of Armenian immigrants. It was even written in western Armenian – the version spoken by my family, which lives on in the Armenian diaspora and is defined by Unesco as an “endangered language”.

The graffiti translated as a celebration of America (“Lord bless Columbus’s soul” was one phrase) and noted the traveller’s home as the “city of Kharpert”. An academic called Katherine Reed found a match in passenger records with a 49-year-old shoemaker called Gaspar Tashjian. More graffiti by other Armenians adorns Ellis Island; apparently they were among the most literate.

The Armenian alphabet hangs alone on the language tree. I was taught its loops, whims and repetitive letters (there are two each for “v”, “o” and “r” sounds) at an Armenian school in west London, where I went every Sunday morning until I was 15. It was there where I learned that the alphabet came to a medieval scholar, Mesrop Mashtots, in a dream in AD 405. Two extra letters had to be added later to his 28-consonant, eight-vowel masterpiece to capture all the sounds you need to speak such a unique language.

It’s remarkable it has survived at all. Once a sprawling kingdom of the Caucasus, becoming the first Christian country in AD 301, Armenia has been sliced and shrunk by a painful history of conquest and empire. From the Ottomans to the Soviets – with the Iranian and Russian empires thrown in for good measure – and the 1915 genocide killing 1.5 million, Armenian culture has long been under threat. It’s a good job Mashtots wrote down that dream.

You don’t need a story like mine to care about Ellis Island, which has become an especially poignant presence in a country whose president is imposing bans on Muslims and building a border wall with Mexico. In fact, new migration museums are popping up across the world, educating visitors in response to the nationalist-populist wave defined by Donald Trump.

The UK’s first migration museum arrived in London two years ago, squatting for free in a disused Vauxhall fire station. It tells all sorts of British emigration and immigration stories, and asks visitors to contribute their own. When I visited, I submitted one of my dad’s favourite cooking ingredients, a Middle Eastern herb and spice mix called za’atar.

These places honour the history of the migrant spirit. I wouldn’t have existed to read that unlikely graffiti without it. My grandparents were born in Cilicia, part of the Ottoman-ruled Armenian lands in the west –  a similar area to my vandalising friend from 1901. As children, they fled to Lebanon after the genocide. And when civil war unfolded there in the 1970s, my dad in turn smuggled himself out of the country, at the age of 21, on a boat ferrying watermelons to Cyprus. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his favourite fruit would always be watermelon.

Eventually, he made it to the UK. And although he didn’t make it to 64, he lives on in this story – through my standing on an island off New York in wet socks, squinting at a turn-of-the-century shoemaker’s elegant way of noting “I was here”.

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