Photography Project Gives Voices to the Voiceless

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

These powerful lines written in 1935 by the poet Langston Hughes continue to reverberate far and wide. One individual struck by Hughes’ plaintive expression is an artist and humanitarian named Ruthie Abel. In Hughes’ poetry and in her own experiences, Ms. Abel recognizes the enduring promise of America as a safe haven. Through her former profession as a legal counsel to human-rights organizations and her current career as a visual artist, Ms. Abel strives to give voice to an especially vulnerable group: children who arrive alone in the United States as refugees.

Her moving exhibit “Let It Be the Dream It Used to Be,” a reference to the Hughes poem, graced the lobby of the Lower Level Dining Room for several weeks recently and generated thoughtful conversations in the Chapin community as well as focused activities for Middle School students.

“I am grateful to Chapin for giving the work a magnificent home — the faculty and students’ attention to and empathy for unaccompanied children exceeded my greatest expectations,” commented Ms. Abel who visited on February 22.

Through words and photographs, “Let It Be The Dream” documents children from often dangerous countries – primarily El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala – who have been granted the legal right to stay in America, thanks to the tireless efforts of pro bono lawyers.

“I only wanted to photograph kids who won court cases and are safe,” explained Ms. Abel, who photographed the children in New York, New Jersey and California. She told the Chapin students during her presentations in the Lower Level that she waits until a child is no longer at risk of being deported before requesting permission to take photographs.

With their hopes for a better life finally realized, the refugees featured in the photographs look in many ways like everyday American children. There is the girl, who appears to be about 12, wearing a light-blue dress with a red cardigan, perched atop a pink bicycle in front of a handsome brick building. In another photo, an older girl relaxes on the porch of a house, the door open behind her. She wears a tank top that says “LOVE” across the front and a dreamy expression on her face. A small American flag waves in the wind near her sandaled foot. In a third photograph, an adolescent boy stands tall against a backdrop of welcoming palm trees. He gazes off into the distance, smiling widely.

The second component of the exhibit included the refugee children’s own art, which was also on display in the Lower Level. With a Polaroid camera, Ms. Abel asked them to capture their brand-new lives as reminders of the extraordinary journeys they took – many traveled thousands of miles on foot, by bus and boat and in the backs of trucks and endured every imaginable hardship – to reach the United States. Below or alongside the photos, Ms. Abel asked them to write something that that was meaningful to them at that moment in time.

The results were mesmerizing in their poignancy. One child took a photograph of her pants and wrote: “This pants is from Guatemala.” A shot of black high-top sneakers on a white fence was captioned: “Favorite shoes for traveling.” A girl captured a train in the distance and a cloud-filled sky, writing, “I feel happy” on the right edge of the Polaroid.

During her visit to Chapin, Ms. Abel conducted intimate workshops with the students in Classes 6 and 7. Sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the exhibit, the girls, in half groups, listened intently as Ms. Abel talked about her artistic process and the children in her photographs, who were about the same age as the Middle School students.

Next, inspired by the Polaroid project, Ms. Abel guided the students in a memoir-writing exercise. “A memoir can be super long or incredibly precise,” she stated. “I want you to write six-word memoirs. They can be about your family story or a response to the exhibit.” As their teachers passed out markers and Post-It notes, the students transformed their thoughts into sparse words. After a few moments, they shared their beautiful work, which included:

 “Silence can be the loudest scream.” “Scary journey from fear to freedom.”

“They smile, we smile, not different.” “I feel motivated to help them.”

At the end of the workshop, the students secured their six-word memoirs to a wall of Ms. Abel’s exhibit for all to see. 

The younger Middle School students also participated in activities around “Let It Be the Dream.” After viewing the photographs, Class 4 wrote imaginative poetry and Class 5 crafted far-reaching questions in response to the exhibit. In their reading journals, they jotted down their observations, feelings and wonderings and took part in energetic group discussions. Their work is currently hanging in a Middle School stairwell for all to admire.

As Ms. Abel explained, more than 60,000 children currently face complicated deportation proceedings without attorneys. With no legal representation, their chances of avoiding deportation are less than 10 percent. With legal counsel, these chances increase to 86 percent. Groundbreaking legal-aid organizations, including the Safe Passage Project, Catholic Charities, South Bronx United and KIND, she noted, are making a difference.

After a former colleague of Ms. Abel’s introduced her to Safe Passage in 2015, her interest in helping undocumented young people grew into a passion. “The anti-immigrant fervor surrounding the 2016 elections weighed on me, especially the negative stereotypes and false characterizations of migrant youth. I could not stop thinking about the Safe Passage kids,” she remarked. While working on a photography commission in Los Angeles, Ms. Abel began to reach out to California legal aid organizations to explore the issue from a national perspective. Gradually, “Let It Be the Dream” took shape. Anastasia Photo, a documentary photography and photojournalism gallery on the Lower East Side, facilitated the show at Chapin. 

By documenting the paths of young refugees, Ms. Abel celebrates their remarkable bravery, strength and imagination. “Despite fleeing horrific, deadly circumstances in their home countries, and facing Sisyphean legal obstacles in the United States, these children are remarkably resilient,” said Ms. Abel, adding that the average age of unaccompanied children is 12 ½. “Through portraits and collaborative work, ‘Let It Be The Dream’ is an attempt to share a bit about their ordinary and extraordinary lives and to give them a voice in the telling of their own stories.”  

Undoubtedly, the Middle School students were deeply affected by Ms. Abel’s exhibit. As they learn more about refugees and immigration in the years ahead, “Let It Be the Dream” will remain a brilliant example of courage in the face of adversity and how compassionate, determined individuals can improve the world.

Browse photos from the exhibit below: