Point of Entry

America’s process of nation-building has been one of inclusion and exclusion. Ideas about who does and doesn’t belong here are ever-contested and ever-changing with the political, economic, and social tides of history. Sean and I have a love for elders and their stories. We chose to collaborate on this series as both a logical continuation of our Elders of Baltimore project—a social media platform focusing on Baltimore seniors— and as a poignant way to disrupt hateful rhetoric about immigrants, which has been on the rise. We hope the likenesses and words of these incredible individuals remind us of our collective humanity and dignity—including those whom we might have regarded as “other”—and demonstrate that the shortest distance between any of us might just be a shared story.

Photos by Sean Scheidt, Interviews by Ashley Minner, 2017

Alfredo Nicola Massa - Calascibetta, Sicily / 1960

Alfredo Nicola Massa - Calascibetta, Sicily / 1960

“I became a United States citizen that December. I was 28 at the time. Actually, my father could have applied... I think if you’re like under the age of 16... I could have been an automatic United States citizen- being adopted- and could have maintained my dual citizenship. But he wasn’t aware of that, and once that time had passed... You know, he used to scare the hell out of me every January. I had to go to the post office and fill out that card by January 31st. ‘They’re gonna come and get you! You better get to the post office!’ Of course, I followed the rules and filled my card, but I could have I wish I could have kept my dual citizenship.”

Alfredo Nicola Massa - Calascibetta, Sicily / 1960

Alfredo Nicola Massa - Calascibetta, Sicily / 1960

“I was born in Calascibetta, Sicily, in 1950. At a young age, I lost my mother and father. I was 3 when my mom passed and 8 when my father passed, and I was very fortunate to be adopted by an Italian couple. My new mother [was] born in Little Italy and my father was actually born in the Abruzzi region of Italy. Coming over at the age of 10, in 1960, my prime focus was how I needed and wanted to learn the English language. And I would not answer or respond- although by then, my father was speaking English and he could speak Italian, having been born there- but my mother was born in Little Italy, Baltimore, and her Italian was very weak. So I insisted that they speak to me in English because I wanted to learn the language. I only knew three words when I got off the plane in New York: ‘hello,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘goodbye.’ And my brother taught me those when he put me on the plane in Rome to send me to the United States.”

Minas Konsolas - Karpathos, Greece / 1976

Minas Konsolas - Karpathos, Greece / 1976

“In the village I come from… we have [this] amazing oral tradition of folk songs. And some older people don’t even speak the everyday language. They speak in poetry to each other. They sing couplets. In Greece, in general, we have a great tradition of poetry from Homer to Herodotus, to the modern poets. It’s like part of you. It’s in your genes. That’s how you understand the world, through a song. Have you ever heard Ithaca? You should read it. It’s a poem by Cavafy. It’s a very, very famous poem. It’s been translated into every language. Ithaca, Ithaca… Especially being an immigrant, Ithaca means a lot to you. It’s the poem that tells you it’s about the journey. It’s not about the destination. And while you are on your journey, try to experience all these different cultures and all that your journey has to offer.”

Minas Konsolas - Karpathos, Greece / 1976

Minas Konsolas - Karpathos, Greece / 1976

“I think I tried to go back once or twice when I first came here. And then, gradually, you know… you change. And then what you call ‘home’ changes. It’s not the same place anymore. And then you kind of find yourself… like, you are on your journey. Rather, that’s where your home is. Your home is to be out there and explore and learn. But then, I live in Baltimore now most of my life, so I call Baltimore my home. That’s what it is.”

Ursula Populoh - Nuremburg, Germany / 1985

Ursula Populoh - Nuremburg, Germany / 1985

“My father was killed in action in WWII and our apartment in Munich was bombed, so we were evacuated to Noerdlingen, which is a small town in the south of Bavaria, a region called Swabia. The first nine years of my life, I lived with my mother in this small town. And then we moved to Nuremberg, where my mother is from. We lived there- or I lived there- until 1963. My mother was killed in a fire accident [in a warehouse] in 1961, so all of a sudden, I was orphaned. I had a brother, whom I raised, who was 10 years my junior. When my mother was killed, I just couldn’t handle to look at anything which had belonged to her. I gave everything away. She walks out in the morning and doesn’t come back? It was so tremendously devastating for me. And then I couldn’t cry because I didn’t want my little brother to feel even more distraught... I hope you understand. I cherished my mother, but to touch something or look at something which she had held would have been impossible for me. So... no, there is nothing... left here, but... How should I say…? You don’t need physical things, you need memories. What [my daughter] was interested in were the songs, because I grew up in a time when there was nothing. I mean- no TV, no radio, nothing. My mother was in a choir. She had a really nice voice, so we always sang when we went into the forest foraging. I know a lot of songs. So this is something she had taught me. I remember my mother telling me that graveyards are for the living. Memories of those who passed are what keeps them alive. That’s a certain mantra for me, which I passed on to [my daughter]. Things don’t count, but memories.”

Ursula Populoh - Nuremburg, Germany / 1985

Ursula Populoh - Nuremburg, Germany / 1985

“Don’t laugh about accents because obviously, the person speaks another language, which many Americans don’t. People don’t realize that people don’t come to a country because they have nothing better to do. Most of the time, they leave behind a lot of things. They come because they think they can have maybe a better life in this country for them and for their children. That’s their main motivation, not making money, not taking advantage of social security, or freeloading, or whatever. And what I was recently thinking about is… You know, before I open my mouth, you don’t know that I’m an immigrant. You just know it when you hear my accent. I cannot imagine how women of color or how Muslim women feel wearing a hijab. If people look at you with hatred- I mean, this comes on top of everything. You feel already vulnerable because you are in a country that you don’t know. You don’t know what social behavior is expected from you. You don’t know the rules and regulations and people look at you [with disgust]… And I have a friend… who is opposed to immigrants. And I say, ‘Look. What am I?’ ‘You are different,’ [she says]. She doesn’t see me anymore as the person who came.”

Rachel Glaser (nee Velleli) - Patras, Greece / 1956

Rachel Glaser (nee Velleli) - Patras, Greece / 1956

“Being young, it was a little scary for me because I didn’t know what was going on. I missed home a lot. And I was angry that we were leaving. I wasn’t happy and I remember that I kept saying to myself, ‘I’m never gonna speak English. I’m never gonna learn this language. I hate it.’ I started going to school, of course. I was put back a year. Instead of going to the 3rd grade, I went to the 2nd and I was angry about that. But the school decided to do that because of the English language. I made it up later on, by skipping a grade... I remember the beginning of school, when I wasn’t saying a word. I was just quiet and just sat there. And then, all of the sudden, I guess I started talking. But it seemed to me that I would never be able to do that. But of course, I did. And we all did. You know, we got used to the language, but that was the initial feeling. And not having... friends and not knowing... And even little things would make me nervous, like the lunch I was taking. So my lunch in a bag was not the same kind of lunch that everyone else was taking. You know, peanut butter and jelly? I never heard of peanut butter and jelly. So, I would take some cooked food from home that my mother would cook. In the beginning, it wasn’t like... sandwiches... ‘cause we didn’t eat sandwiches in Greece. We ate other things… And I thought people would look at me, like ‘What kind of a lunch are you having?’ So it was the little things that I felt different because I wasn’t able... to be similar, in that way. Even the way I dressed- I dressed differently because that’s what I had. But I think that quickly passed and I began to acclimate and get used to the school. And I started loving school.”

Josephine Becker (nee Velleli) - Patras, Greece / 1956

Josephine Becker (nee Velleli) - Patras, Greece / 1956

“Oh, what do I remember? Crying. Every day. I wanted to go back...but it didn’t work out. Well, we didn’t know anybody except the people that came with us here and uh... You know, I had just... I had graduated school two years before we came here. And I had a lot of friends that were not - I still do - you know, that are not Jewish, but that didn’t matter. And uh... You know, you grow up for 20 years in one place, it kind of takes a long time to get it out of your system.”

Nguyễn Thị Hà Quảng Ngãi - Vietnam / 2011

Nguyễn Thị Hà Quảng Ngãi - Vietnam / 2011

“My name is Tina. In Vietnamese, Nguyễn Thị Hà. I’m 62 years old. I came here in 2011. I miss Vietnam, but I like it here. I came because all of my sons and daughters live here. Because I’m with my family, I’m ok with leaving Vietnam. For a long time, in Vietnam, I was a nurse. I didn’t work in a hospital, but in a clinic. I used to worry a lot because I took care of babies. I love children. I don’t mind working in the nail shop because I stay busy.”

Nguyễn Thị Hà - Quảng Ngãi, Vietnam / 2011

Nguyễn Thị Hà - Quảng Ngãi, Vietnam / 2011

“The war started when I was 10 years old. I don’t even know what I thought. I was just scared. A lot of people died. But 1974 was the best year of my life because I met my first love. He lived in a different town. The war brought fire and we had to run. I was separated from my family and I didn’t know where they were. I ended up in a safe house in his town and that’s where I met him- my husband. My daddy went to the army. He came back and he died. My mom lived to be old. She got sick and died. My husband died ten years ago. I will not marry again. When I have time, I listen to bolero music. It’s like country music, love songs. And I sing.”

Amarjit Kaur Singh - Punjab, India / 1990

Amarjit Kaur Singh - Punjab, India / 1990

“My temple . . . [let me tell you] what happen over there. There is a place they do the prayer and we do all together. And we listen and we have food all together. We sit on the floor and we eat every Sunday. We have Ardaas. That is the prayer. It is everything written in the book, in the holy book. The first word is ‘Ek-Oankar.’ It means God is one and God is everything. God is everywhere. Pray to God.”

Amarjit Kaur Singh - Punjab, India / 1990

Amarjit Kaur Singh - Punjab, India / 1990

“We cook every day different. Sometimes kidney beans, chicken… every time different. I learned from my mom. We watch her and we learn when we are small child. From 9- 10 years old, I start cooking. I estimate everything. [All of the recipes are…] in brain, yes. And never wrong. Always perfect.”

Bereket Michael  - Adi Sherefato, Eritrea / 1977

Bereket Michael - Adi Sherefato, Eritrea / 1977

“I was living with my aunt. I sleep on the floor. My two cousins, they have one bed. My aunty had a bed. And I came at 7 o’clock, walking 1 hour and a half from my school. And when I come to home, we eat a dinner. At 9 o’clock, it has to be turn off the light because they have to go to sleep. So I go to the street. I sit under the streetlight. I study from 9 o’clock until 1 or 2 o’clock. After that, from 3rd grade, I jump to 5th grade. From 5th grade, I jump to 8th grade. From 8th grade, I go to Ethiopia. When I started school, I was 18 years old. In fact, the problem I have is, I reduce my age. And it’s still killing me. My age on the record is 81, but I am 86 because I reduced my age 4 years to be equal with my classmates.”

Bereket Michael  - Adi Sherefato, Eritrea / 1977

Bereket Michael - Adi Sherefato, Eritrea / 1977

“Two of [my children], they were in school. So I went to pick them from the school at 3 o’clock. My older daughter says, “Papa, why do you come here waiting us? Wait over there by the tree. Whenever you come, don’t come here, just wait there.” Because I have an accent, as you know now… I am a short man, and I have an older car. So this was on Thursday. I didn’t sleep. I asked for off of day on Friday. I fly to Washington. I have a lot of friend who have the same problem, set in this beautiful country. I ask them my daughter do this. They say, ‘Why? Because you are the only person who looks like you. There are no other person.’ ‘So what do I do, then?’ ‘Come move here [Laurel, Maryland], so when they see us, they will accept you.’ So they find me a house, a job, and we move here. So we stay where we are now.”