Émigrés have plenty of stories to tell about coming to America
Woolwich & Wellesley Township's Local Community Newspaper | Elmira, Ontario, Canada
Help
Follow

A little more local for your inbox.

Seven days. One newsletter. Local reporting about people and places you
won't find anywhere else. Stay caught up with The Observer This Week.

Enter your email to subscribe. Unsubscribe anytime. We may send you promotional messages.
Please read our privacy policy.

Émigrés have plenty of stories to tell about coming to America

Colin Boyd Shafer and Kate Kamo McHugh chronicle tales of immigrants in the Finding American photo book. [Leah Gerber]

Jacqueline Ernst grew up on William Street in Elmira. When she married, she and her husband moved to Waterloo near RIM Park. She never thought about leaving the area. Then she and her husband were told that her daughter, who has spastic cerebral palsy, was an ideal candidate for a life-changing surgery in St. Louis.

The procedure was not yet available in Ontario, and the cost would have to be paid out-of-pocket for a total of about $250,000, including the procedure, travel and physical therapy. The couple was exploring ways they could cover this cost, including re-mortgaging their house. Then her husband was offered a position at Walmart headquarters in Arkansas.

“Under American health care and under my husband’s health care plan, instead of costing $250,000, it might cost us $50,000 to have the surgery done,” said Ernst. They decided to move the family and became immigrants to  the US.

Ernst’s experience is one among about 200 stories of immigration to the United States featured in a new project from husband and wife duo Colin Boyd Shafer and Kate Kamo McHugh called “Finding American: Stories of immigration from the 50 states.”  

The project highlights people who have immigrated to each of the 50 US states. The purpose is to draw attention to the full spectrum of the immigration experience, says Boyd Shafer. The idea came to him during the 2016 presidential election when anti-immigration sentiment was prevalent.

“There’s all this middle ground that’s not particularly interesting to the media or to Trump,” said Boyd Shafer. “I wanted to tell a more nuanced story of immigrants not just focusing on the outliers, like the heroes and the villains, but all the colours of the rainbow, the full spectrum, not just the black and white.”

Boyd Shafer and Kamo McHugh are hosting a fundraiser, selling pre-prints of the book which will be a high quality photography book, the final product of the project. So far their campaign on Indiegogo has raised $25,000 of their US$36,000 goal, and they have just days left to raise the rest before Indiegogo returns funds to the donors.

Boyd Shafer himself is a second generation Canadian. Most of his family lives in the United States, and his father is American. Kamo McHugh grew up in Elmira and is descended from Japanese immigrants. The couple lives in Kitchener, and Kamo McHugh still works at the Elmira library part time.

“It’s important for everyone to think about where our families come from,” said Boyd Shafer.

Shafer has completed other photo documentary projects, including Cosmopolis Toronto, which showed immigrants in Toronto from every country in the world, and INTERLOVE, a project about interfaith love stories, among others.

It took two years to make the journey to every state. Boyd Shafer and Kamo McHugh could only do the project in three-month stints because of US rules around how long a non-resident can stay, and health insurance requirements. The project was self-funded, so they mostly couch-surfed, that is, stayed at the homes of people they connected with through Couchsurfing.com, as they drove around the country in their little Toyota. The participants were found through word of mouth and social media.

Kamo McHugh said most people they interviewed didn’t think their story was really worth telling.  “Then they would start telling us their story and it almost always blew us away.”

“Every single story was so touching. I cried almost every interview,” she said. “They all just seemed like such heroes to me, even though mainstream media wouldn’t have classified them that way,” said Kamo McHugh.

They covered stories like that of a woman named Ruth from Zimbabwe who became a nurse, escaped an abusive husband, was wrongly put in jail, started her own cleaning company, paid for her children to attend university, and became an activist for queer rights and asylum claims.

Throughout the course of the project, the couple was very surprised by the prevalence of undocumented people, that is, people who live and work in the United States who do not have official permission to be there. Boyd Shafer says they heard stories of people who didn’t know they were undocumented until they tried to get a driver’s license.

It’s to share these kinds of stories that Boyd Shafer is pushing forward with this project, but the pressure of fundraising is starting to take its toll. “It’s going to happen in some capacity, we’re not going to let this fail,” he said. “It’s been a grind. It’s very expensive to publish a photography book.”

For Elmira’s  Ernst,  immigrating to the United States was worth it. Her daughter had her surgery in October 2018. The now nine-year-old went from needing a walker to walking on her own within a year after the procedure, she says. Now, the little girl does cannonballs in the pool, goes to ballet class with her peers and recently participated in a community production of Little Mermaid.

“It’s really interesting when you can sit and read through individual stories and see America through (the subjects’) eyes and their journey to come here,” said Ernst. “I think Colin has captured that in such an amazing and accessible way to help people understand why people might choose to come to America.”

To learn more about the project, email findingamerican@gmail.com.

A little more local for your inbox.

Seven days. One newsletter. Local reporting about people and places you
won't find anywhere else. Stay caught up with The Observer This Week.

Enter your email to subscribe. Unsubscribe anytime. We may send you promotional messages.
Please read our privacy policy.

Total
6
Shares



Related Posts
Read the full story

It was just like old times

Dan Straus said when he saw Carlo Perrotta, his former Grade 7 teacher, walking toward him at the…
Read the full story

Where skills are a transferrable thing

Bradley Balkaran, Musa Dolley and Ali Mussa can’t help identifying weeds everywhere they go since they started working…
Total
6
Share