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Recent immigrants share reflections on what coming to the U.S. has meant Gallery exhibit explores diverse experiences of those who left homes


The lives of immigrants unfold in words and pictures in a new exhibit that tells stories of flight from war and famine to reach freedom.

In their own writing, six immigrants who took English classes at Baltimore City Community College observe -- sometimes poignantly -- their new lives. The exhibit, called "New Americans," went on display Sept. 19 in the Courtyard Gallery of City Hall.

Yanni Chan, a Chinese refugee, concludes that freedom carries a price tag:

"In the beginning, I saw lots of freedom here. . . . Freedom speech, human right, the vote and the separation of the powers of the president, justice and government. After that I found lots of things restrict you freedom. You have to pay for everything by youself. Medicine, house, education and insurance -- so, it seems money is more important than freedom for me now."

The exhibit has been shown at Indiana University in Bloomington and at an English as a Second Language convention in Baltimore last year, said Meintje Westerbeek, manager of the college's English as a Second Language program. The exhibit is scheduled for display at Ellis Island this year.

"It tells the story of immigrants," Ms. Westerbeek said. "It's really a combination of hope for people and their commitment, taking on major risks and are willing to go through hard times, a lot of setbacks and discrimination, basically, to make it in America."

The photos were taken by James N. Startt, who taught English as a Second Language classes at Baltimore City Community College. He took pictures of some of his students and asked them to write thoughts on their lives here and in their homelands. The enlarged writings run beneath the photos and are matted and framed.

Ms. Chan writes that her mother was raised on Mao Tse-tung communism and her father on colonial Hong Kong capitalism. She wants something better for her son -- and is certain that she's found it in the United States.

One subject is identified only as Chen, a Chinese refugee. His eyes are concealed by black strips in the photos. At the time, he was afraid that he would get into trouble if his face were revealed, said Ms. Westerbeek.

Chen writes about participating in student demonstrations against the Chinese government as a 16-year-old high school student about the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

"We just thought government was a 'bad boy.' And we could help it become 'a good boy.' It is a butcher. We were wrong."

Niloufar Behmanesh, 30, said in an interview that she came here from Iran because her native country has been too oppressive for women since Muslim fundamentalists rose to power.

"I don't like the traditional ways," said Ms. Behmanesh, who lives in Charles Village on a student visa. She says women cannot attend college or hold top jobs in Iran. "I don't want to walk behind my husband, stay home and cook, bake cookies. I'm a woman and the government took everything from me. But here, at least I have the opportunity to go to school."

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