Amid immigration debate, online project aims to humanize issue

Charlotte Koons stands in her living room next Charlotte Koons stands in her living room next to a wall of event buttons holding a photo of her and her parents, Frida and Leo Spitzl, as well as a photo of herself at a recent event inside her home in Eatons Neck. (Nov. 20, 2013) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

advertisement | advertise on newsday

The yellowed photograph taken sometime after World War II shows Leo and Frida Spitzl -- a serious bespectacled man and a woman with salt-and-pepper hair giving a hint of a smile -- with their American-born daughter in the only formal portrait left of the family.

The daughter, Charlotte Koons of Eatons Neck, posted the image on a new online platform being tested on Long Island to tell the stories of immigration that are the root of many American family trees.

"It was maybe the first time we got together the money enough to do that," Koons, 79, recalled of the photo. "This was a big occasion."

The project to bring out those stories is dubbed Immigrant Nation, a private initiative partnering with immigrant-advocacy groups such as Long Island Wins to recruit participants. It seeks to reclaim family narratives to engage people in conversation via the Internet as an alternative to an acrimonious policy debate over immigration laws.

"There are these beautiful poignant stories and there has to be a way for all Americans to share these stories and to be able to connect all the dots," said Maryann Sinclair Slutsky, director of Long Island Wins in Old Westbury.

Koons' posting, for instance, deals mainly with heartbreak. The child of an Austrian father who worked as a waiter and a Swiss mother who was a chamber maid, she said she was mocked by other children because of her German accent at a time of heightened nationalism amid armed conflict.

"Born here before WWII to immigrant parents, I spoke no English until I was 4 and was often made fun of at school," Koons, a retired schoolteacher who still works as a substitute, says in her entry on the site.

After other children chased her around school and called her "a German spy," she went home and "started pulling furniture from the wall," she relates, adding that she tearfully told her mother that she was "looking for the hidden radio."

San Francisco filmmaker Theo Rigby created the site to engage more people in discussing immigration from a new perspective, he said. "There is a disconnect sometimes between that community that doesn't identify as immigrant and the recent immigrant communities," he said, adding that he hoped it would take the debate "to a more personal and more human place."

Those who post on the site are limited to two photographs and two paragraphs to encapsulate their heritage. But Koons said that in briefly sharing her memories, she sought to show how those early experiences shaped her life and led to her activism against war and advancing civil rights for minority groups.

"I have lived the American dream and my big thing is I don't want to pull up the ladder after me," Koons said. "I want these young people to have the same chances I did, you know, to live a fulfilling life."

The searchable site, open for contributions from Long Islanders at beta.immigrant-nation.com, will feature links to social media so that participants can share their stories more widely.

Entries are displayed as dots on a timeline that tracks immigration to the United States. Stories are also grouped by countries of origin. The site also includes short documentary films.

The full site is to launch in late February when testing with contributions from Long Island and Omaha is completed.

Dozens of area residents saw a demonstration of the test site at a November gathering in Patchogue, the site of the 2008 hate killing of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero.

"What we are doing is building kind of like a bridge of stories," said Hendel Leiva, a community organizer with Long Island Wins.

He posted his story as an American born to Ecuadorean and Guatemalan immigrants who met while working at Kennedy Airport and settled in Brentwood.

"To me, people on Long Island live in their own little world and we are not always connected and don't know people's stories," Leiva said.

Artist Linda Abadjian, a Patchogue resident, shared two images from her collection of acrylic- and ink-on-paper paintings that reflect a landscape scarred by war in her native Lebanon.

She posted a painting that depicts a hallway in the childhood home she left as her family fled war when she was 12. A second painting shows a lamb doll that has been a motif in many of her works, a stuffed animal she got in America after leaving toys in the birthplace.

"It is an unconscious attempt to bring back my childhood, void of fear [and] bombs," Abadjian, 41, wrote on the site.

She agreed to share her story "hoping that people will be aware that America is built on immigrants and that's what makes America so beautiful and wonderful to live here."

Slutsky said that the spirit of the campaign is why she shared a blurry photograph of her beloved grandmother, who came by ship to New York from Ireland in 1908. Her second photo is a group shot of the numerous Irish-American descendants in her family.

Each person who posts a story gets to pose a question to future visitors of the site. Slutsky's is an invitation for others to trace their immigrant roots: "How far back does your family go?"

Clarification: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the name of the program called Immigrant Nation.

You also may be interested in: