America is celebrating the 125th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty and I was curious what the statue means to people today.
I was born in the US and have only seen the Statue once when I was five years old. I remember thinking how big it was and how long it took to climb all the stairs to the top. We got to look out from the crown and I still remember how impressed I was with the view of New York City.
Over the years I’ve talked to several people who came to the US through New York. One was my father-in-law. He came to the US in 1920 at the age of 17 and was processed through Ellis Island along with hundreds of others. At the time, he was the oldest of ten kids and had just completed high school in his homeland of Barbados. He traveled alone to New York to attend college.
An interesting side note is that he had written a letter to his uncle who lived in New York City and mailed it two weeks prior to boarding the ship that brought him to the US. After being processed at Ellis Island, he waited a couple of hours for his uncle but no one showed up. With his uncle’s address in hand, he headed out on foot into New York City to find his uncle’s house. They were quite surprised to see him at their door as they had not heard he was coming. A couple of days later, his letter arrived. It turned out that the ship he took from Barbados was the first ship to leave the island since he had mailed his letter.
Sitting down with him one day, I asked him what it was like when he saw New York and Statue of Liberty for the first time, especially coming from such a small island. Even though Barbados was still a British colony at that time, he sensed the pride of America when he saw the Statue. He told me that there was a feeling inside of him that was hard to explain and probably difficult for someone born here to understand. He said that it impressed upon him what freedom was and what America was about. It also represented hope for the future for all those coming to the US.
One couple I met some years back were a Jewish couple from Germany who fled to the US just before World War 2 broke out. Hitler’s Nazi regime had started to round up Jews and kill them. They knew their only chance was escape and to flee to the US. It cost them nearly everything had to pay a friend to smuggle them out of Germany through Austria and Italy and finally on to a boat headed to America. As the ship approached the New York harbor, everyone traveling with them was crowded at the bow to get a look at the Lady of Liberty as they called it. The realization that they had actually made it to America, the land of the free was so emotional that most them wept with tears of joy To them, the Statue meant life and the freedom to be a Jew and not afraid to admit it.
Another gentleman I knew told me that he came to America via New York. He was a black man from central Africa. His family was very poor but he was one of the few that had gotten an education. With no real hope in his homeland, his parents, aunts and uncles and even friends raised enough money to send him to America. They told him to work hard and always remember from where he had come from. When he first saw the Statue of Liberty, he could not control his sobbing. He told me that he felt like the Statue was greeting him and pointing to heaven, to which he knelt and gave thanks. He sobbed not just because he missed his family and friends, but because it was the very first time in his life that he felt he could truly do something to make a difference in his life and the lives of all those back home.
Nate got a job as a janitor in a small grocery store in New Jersey. He worked hard keeping the store cleaner than it had ever been kept before. The store owner was so impressed with this work ethics that he made him a clerk in the store, stocking shelves and running the cash register. Eventually, he became an assistant manager of the store and upon the death of the manager; the owner made him the new manager. His work ethics and customer service was so good that the store was quite successful and the owner attributed it all to him. The owner then opened up a new store and made Nate the manager over both stores. Within ten years of arriving in America, Nate was making enough money to bring his parents and siblings to America to join him. He told me that his mom and dad both cried when they saw the Statue of Liberty, just as he had years earlier.
It’s ironic that the Statue of Liberty was intended to be a gift to America to celebrate its first centennial as a nation. It was to stand for freedom and democracy. But from what I’ve seen, heard and read, the Statue of Liberty means more to those coming to America (legally) than it does to most Americans. Those Americans that I have spoken to seem to look at the Statue as some kind of curiosity in the same way they look at the Grand Canyon. It’s one of those landmarks that you like to have checked off your list of things to see, but that’s about it.
Yet to the millions of people that left their homes in other nations, their first sighting of the Statue of Liberty is something they never forget as long as they live. It’s not just a curious landmark to them. It represents all that America is supposed to be. It represents their dreams and hopes for freedom and a better life for their families. The statuesque lady with her torch held high tells them that the sacrifices they made to get here are worth it.
The Statue of Liberty means so much more to them than it does to us.
So once again I will ask you, what does the Statue of Liberty mean to you? Leave us your comments and let us and others know just how important the green lady is to you and what it has meant in your life.