When I think of stories of “longing” and “nostalgia,” the first thing that comes to mind is growing up as a 90’s child, watching Rocko’s Modern Life on Nickelodeon, eating fruit roll-ups, and dial up internet. Ah, the days when life was so much simpler. A world without social media, go figure!
But last weekend, I participated in an event, where “Stories of Longing and Nostalgia” took on a completely different meaning. The event was created by a beautiful woman, inside and out, who is now my newest personal and creative inspiration, Elaheh Farmand.
Elaheh shared her original inspiration with me: “As an immigrant, I’ve learned that not everyone knows what it’s like to feel nostalgic about a place you can’t go back to. Even if you are not an immigrant, you may have experienced a sort of exile, a sort of longing for something that you can’t quite attain. I spent years in nostalgia and sadness. Music got me through this time, and so did writing and art. But what I needed most was a connection to people so that I could share my thoughts, my confusion, my loneliness. This is why I created the Immigrants & Exile: Stories of Nostalgia & Longing showcase series.”
I was honored to be a part of Elaheh’s one year anniversary storytelling showcase, Stories of Nostalgia & Longing and share the story of my grandmother and grandfather, respectively from Czechoslovakia and Poland, who eventually came to New York where they met. An estimated 40 percent of Americans can trace their lineage through Ellis Island, America’s first federal immigration center. This year was its its 125th anniversary.
It was a very fitting time to honor my grandmother, Hanna Stochel Schachne-Seidel, a Holocaust survivor. She was 18 when the Nazis invaded the small village where she lived in Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic and Slovakia) and she was taken to Auschwitz. There, she witnessed terrible brutality and starvation, but she survived because she was an excellent seamstress and the Nazis depended on her to sew their uniforms. Her brother and her husband, whom she’d only recently married and was madly in love with, were also taken; she never saw them again.
I can only imagine, having been through so much, coming to America and encountering others with a hatred for Jewish immigrants; even some Jews themselves, who were deeply bothered by the reminder of life from the “old country.” Many in New York were met with intolerance and disbelief. My grandmother had shoes thrown at her in the street and was called names she couldn’t understand. Despite all of this, my great Uncle Morris told me, in one of the many interviews I conducted with him in order to write a full-length play about my family, “She was a happy woman, when she didn’t let her memories get in her way.”
So, what were those “memories in the way?” Nowadays, people talk openly about mental health and psychology, but back then Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was not a thing. So, my grandmother always just kept whatever she was feeling inside. Despite all this, my grandmother never grew bitter. Sure, there was some sadness in her. But she was always loving, grateful, and generous for as long as I knew her.
Immigrants and Exile
The story of my grandmother’s incredible life, in spite of her “memories” was just one of the many stories of immigrants who had been through so much and went on to lead inspiring lives. At Elaheh’s Immigrants and Exile showcase, I was fortunate enough to hear so many of these stories, finally brought to light by those who lived them, or heard them firsthand.
“Let us find hope in the midst of chaos. When we create art, we not only keep each other sane, but we also find strength to help those who need us more than ever now,” Elaheh remarked, as she welcomed a group of artists, friends and family into the room.
We live in a diverse, multicultural melting pot, but do we really know each other’s stories of where we come from? Do we know the struggles we endured that led us to where we are? What is it really like to speak a different tongue, when English is a second language? What is it like to have dreams about the motherland, even when we’ve left it behind, long ago?
These questions, although on the forefront of my own mind, were articulated so beautiful by Elaheh.
How did this showcase originally start, a full year ago? I spoke with Elaheh on the inspiration behind this artistic melting pot.
“Starting this showcase felt like a selfish idea at first. I didn’t think I’d have an audience for it. But it turns out that people do want to hear these stories, people do want to share, people do care. The Immigrants and Exile showcase gives us all a new perspective. Even as an immigrant myself, hearing other people’s stories not only fascinates me, but it also reminds me that we all have unique backgrounds and experiences. I hope that more and more people get a chance to hear these stories, especially now with the growing fear and uncertainty amongst our immigrant and other minority communities. We need to come together to find strength and to pass on our kindness and love to the next person we meet.”
And come together they did. Julia Patinella, Mariam Bazeed, Peppo F. Vintimilla Burneo, Deep Chhabria Hamed Farmand, and Senthil were some of the amazing actors, artists and storytellers involved, all who had been driven to create a better world through their art and family legacies.
These “stories of longing and nostalgia” truly brought the coming together of families. Even Elaheh’s brother, Hamed Farmand, an activist, participated.
In his words, “Last year, my sister, Elaheh, started translating my book, which is in Farsi. My book, Missing Mum, is my memoir about my childhood experience of having mother in prison. One day, she brought an idea, having showcase and telling my story. It was a great chance for me to start talking about my experience with non-Persian audiences. It was an opportunity to talk about my mission as well, to put a light on the life of unseen children, who experienced parental incarceration and were affected psychologically, physically and behaviorally.
This year, I have a plan for myself, to stand for women’s rights, women who were separated from their children by force and be stigmatized at the same time. Immigration and Exile showcase give me another chance to talk loudly about mothers and children who were affected by our system and society.
As long as I have voice in this show, I have a chance to hear from other immigrants, second generations or people who view themselves in exile. This is a chance for all of us to show empathy to each other and transfer our challenges to opportunity. ”
In my own family story, I shared more letters from my Uncle Morris, my grandmother’s younger brother who also survived the Second World War with his own memories. I shared some of his grief, for the loss of his older brother, Samuel – the only family member who died in the war:
“Samuel never had a chance for life. He died at the age of 20 in Auschwitz concentration camp. He was the first to be taken away to labor camps, and when these grey buses used to show up to take the young men to labor camps, I remember that the whole family was out, in town, where the buses were, standing, picking them up, and where all the families were saying goodbye to the young men. We never saw Samuel again.”
I also shared Morris’ positivity, his gratitude for life, and the love for family he has gone on to have. This is something I noticed with all the Storytellers in this showcase, who traveled from one world to another: from so much pain, came so much wisdom, light, art, and love.
From my own pain, came my own personal art that I shared, as an original song I wrote, Madwoman, to show the “two worlds” that I felt myself in after my decade of trauma. When I was “physically healthy,” I was often met with puzzlement as to why I wasn’t “normal” already, or what was taking so long to get on with my life. Once I started to understand Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome – PTSD – I realized that the body holds traumatic memories that take longer to heal. I was “spit out of the hospital” months later, and told to live a “normal life” when it was still unknown if I’d ever be able to consume a drop of water again.
What was I supposed to do? I had just gotten my college acceptance letters, and I was certainly in no shape to attend, when intravenous fluids were the only source of nourishment for my body! I thought of my grandmother, who was “spit out of the D.P. camps” once Auschwitz was liberated. “You’re free!” a soldier told her. But what now? Both my grandmother and I were caught in the midst of two worlds, unsure of where to go next.
Plagued by memories, I was stuck in a world confined by fear, in a world apart from everyone else. After leaving the hospital, I still had no idea what to do with my life. But I found ways to heal, through creative expression. Through writing this song, Madwoman, and hearing more “stories of longing” at Immigrants and Exile, I was reminded that Art is the great equalizer, where we can bring all of these stories of “nostalgia and longing” to light – whether it’s for us, for our parents, or for generations and generations before us.
The day after the showcase, I wrote to my Uncle Morris, and he told me more stories – stories he had never shared with anyone until someone finally took the time to ask. And these were his words, in our latest correspondence:
“In any case, I think I am boring you enough for today and I’ll catch up with you another time. Congratulations on your graduation, I didn’t realize that you hadn’t graduated college before, and that you finally did, it’s just wonderful, and I respect you for that. You never gave up and look what you did with your life. It’s just unbelievable.” – Morris.
Yes, almost a decade later, I finally went back to college and graduated. It shows anything is possible. And experiencing songs, stories, art, comedy, and social causes in this showcase – well, I couldn’t help think of my Uncle Morris, and his closing words.
“Thank you sweetheart, for giving me a chance to express myself. Thank you.”
Yes, Gratitude. I came away from “Immigrants and Exile” with an overwhelming feeling of Thanks.
How do we find the gratitude in today’s world?
“We are living in troubling times,” Elaheh remarked. “I encourage us to come together and remind ourselves of the compassion and the love we have for one another, despite our differences that make us unique. Let us pass on our kindness to others and continue our fight for human rights.”
And that’s what this group of artists, survivors, storytellers, and humans with hearts bigger than the diversity in that studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn did. Elaheh is an inspiration to be sure. In all of our “two worlds” Farmand set up a space to pass on our kindness – kindness and generosity of spirit inherited by those who had worked so hard to come to this country, and have made it a better place with art, love and light.
Learn more about Immigrants and Exile at https://immigrantsandexile.squarespace.com/
Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD peer-to-peer specialist, artist, author, writer for Huffington Post, speaker for TEDx and RAINN, health advocate, survivor, award-winning actress, and playwright. She works individually with her innovative creativity coaching, business, speaking, and social media courses. As creator of her one-woman musical Gutless & Grateful , the #LoveMyDetour Campaign, which was the subject of her TEDx Talk, she’s currently touring theatres nationwide, along with a program combining mental health advocacy, sexual assault awareness and Broadway Theatre for college campuses and international conferences. Subscribe to her newsletter for updates and free excerpts from her upcoming book, My Beautiful Detour, available December 2017. Get your free creativity e-book at amyoes.com/create and a free guide to getting a TEDx Talk at amyoes.com/discover.