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The O’Toole Chronicles: Give me your tiredness…

The New Colossus – Emma Lazarus – 1883

My legal partner, Tom Scrivo, and I recently had the opportunity to visit Ellis Island for a very impressive corporate event. There was a big anniversary celebration for this New Jersey based company and individuals from many of the 50 states were in attendance. Although the anniversary was a pretty cool event (Sara McLaughlin has an amazing voice), what struck me the most were the unrehearsed and unexpected raw emotions experienced by the ferry passengers as we rolled towards Ellis Island. Let me get to the punchline – the scene stealer was the sight of the Statue of Liberty.

The way the trip was planned gave you a fantastic scenic drive down the Hudson River, taking in all of Manhattan’s incomparable skyline and all that Jersey City has to offer – sheer beauty all around. But the moment to hold your breath came as we nudged a few boat lengths from the Statue of Liberty. In fact, seeing this national and international treasure in person was pure magic.

Now, we all see the statue from afar, whether it’s a view on the highway, filming on TV or in a movie, or sometimes as a backdrop in the news. But if you haven’t had the privilege of seeing it up close and personal, you haven’t lived the American dream and you haven’t done justice to an American treasure.

A pure moment of reflection-

When we pulled up on Lady Liberty, as the sun began to set, the hundred or so people on the ferry fell silent, almost as if they were entering a religious place. After a moment’s thought, many pulled out their phones and took hundreds of photos and videos, preserving the moment and the scene for future generations to see. But the most interesting part of the trip was the chatter between the passengers when the statue appeared. Almost everyone had the story of a grandparent, a mother or a father, or a close relative who crossed these same waters as an immigrant, all looking for the same thing – a fresh start in a free country and striving to work hard to capture that elusive American dream. Childlike enthusiasm was abundant as one story after another tumbled on the journey from afar to this American soil.

A few hundred years ago, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty symbolized the passage of freedom for millions of people.

Interestingly, as many as 20 million immigrants floundered to this place, seeking freedom, seeking opportunity, and pursuing American ideals. And up to 40% of those living in the United States today, including me, can trace their ancestry to immigrants who visited Ellis Island.

You talk to these immigrants today, or the direct descendants of these freedom seekers, and hear story after story of a life left behind that usually bore the horrific marks of war, misery, poverty, illness or oppression and the hope was to move, literally and figuratively, in another direction to grant themselves and their families a moment of freedom, an opportunity to educate their children, a a place to pray and worship openly, and a place to call home. As we set off on that last ferry to the mainland and fireworks lit up the sky (in spectacular fashion), the one question that remained unanswered – if we were all here from somewhere, and we were all joined by a common pursuit of that special dream, why are we still dealing with the insidious strains of racism, classism and other modes of hatred and discrimination?

My takeaway – given our shared beginnings and shared family journeys, we all need to do a better job of making everyone else feel more welcome in this place we call America.