On Compassion


“Coming to America had meaning. I was a kid of seven and in contrast to what I had gone through, Ellis Island was like not a haven, but a heaven. I don’t remember any fright when I got to Ellis Island.

My father’s dream and prayer always was ‘I must get my family to America’…America was paradise, the streets were covered with gold. And when we arrived here, and when we landed from Ellis Island and [went] to Buffalo, it was as if God’s great promise had been fulfilled that we would eventually find freedom.”

-Vartan Hartunian

This illustration and quote are from a picture book I did years ago, called I Was Dreaming to Come to America: Memories of the Ellis Island Oral History Project. (Viking) In the course of creating this book, I read so many stories from so many people for whom America was a beacon, a safety, a hope. Mr. Vartunian, who I had the honor of meeting in person after this book was published, escaped the Armenian genocide with his family, and came to the United States from Turkey in 1922, when he was only 7.  Vartan’s mother was Syrian. Years later, Mr. Hartunian’s father wrote a book about their experiences, called Neither to Laugh nor to Weep: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide.

I felt proud of my country when doing this book and learning of how the United States became the salvation of this family. Vartan Hartunian was one of the kindest and happiest people I had ever met – which I find to be often the case when someone has gone through a period of great sorrow.

I hope we are still the compassionate country I believe us to be, one that embraces immigrants and offers a haven for refugees. Which to many, as Mr. Harunian remembers, is more like a heaven.

To read a Washington Post article about the administration’s opposition to Syrian refugees, click HERE.

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