With new exhibit, Fairfield Museum celebrates contributions of local refugees and immigrants

Photo of Justin Papp

FAIRFIELD — Though it’s been nearly 70 years since her arrival, Elizabeth Deutsch still remembers her boat pulling into New York Harbor and her first view of the Statue of Liberty.

“When we were on the boat and we saw that lady, we threw kisses,” Deutsch remembered. “When we got off the boat, I kissed the ground.”

Deutsch was born a Hungarian Jew in the years leading up to World War II. As a teenager during the Holocaust, she and her family were sent to Auschwitz. She was one of only a few to survive.

“Mothers, aunts, cousins — all of them. They went up in smoke,” said Deutsch, 90, a Fairfield resident since 1970.

In subsequent months, Deutsch was transferred with her sister, Freida, to Bergen-Belsen, Braunschweig, and Bendev, before being liberated in May 1945 on the way to Buchenwald concentration camp. Following the war, Deutsch and her sister spent five years in Sweden, but in 1950 were able to relocated to Bridgeport. Deutsch was 20 at the time

“She really saved my life. I was so young,” said Deutsch, Thursday, Feb. 8 at the Fairfield Museum’s opening reception for “An American Story: Finding Home in Fairfield County,” which will run through July 23.

Deutsch’s is one of eight immigrant and refugee stories celebrated in the exhibit, which was organized in partnership with the Bridgeport-based Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants, which is celebrating its centennial anniversary.

The subjects come from Cambodia, Congo, Cuba, Hungary, India, Rwanda and Syria and have settled in Bridgeport, Fairfield, Greenwich and New Canaan. On four double side banners suspended from the gallery’s ceiling, the stories of the transplants are told beside glossy photos of each.

One, Bunseng Taing, arrived in Bridgeport in 1980 after twice escaping Khmer Rouge concentration camps to Thailand. He opened a painting business that he still runs today. Maha Karamahad left Syria in 2013 when violence from the Civil War escalated. She fled with her two daughters to Egypt, where her son was born, before being resettled in Greenwich in 2016. She now works for the nonprofit Save the Children in Fairfield. The most recent arrival, Josh Kangere, was a medical assistant in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A nurse in his home country, Kangere was forced to leave his wife and child behind in the Congo after he received death threats for refusing to alter the medical records of women who had been raped. He spent five years as a refugee in Nairobi, Kenya, before arriving in Bridgeport in February 2017. Kangere was not in attendance because he was at work, washing dishes at Sugar & Olive in Westport. He’s studying to get his nursing credentials.

Another, Evelyne Mukasonga, came to Bridgeport in 2000 with her husband and son. Both her parents were killed in the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when members of the Hutu majority slaughtered as many as one million Tutsi ethnic minorities, Mukasonga’s parents among them. Mukasonga was imprisoned for a year in the Congo, before finding refuge at a camp in Benin.

More Information

For more information on programs running in conjunction with the exhibition, visit fairfieldhistory.org

For more information on the Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants, visit cirict.org

“It is not easy. I came here and I spoke only a little English,” said Mukasonga, who is multilingual now works as a translator for CIRI and helps newcomers to Fairfield County get settled. “You have to forget a little how you were living back home.”

The exhibition is one of a series of programs the museum has planned to highlight the experiences of immigrants and refugees who have settled in Fairfield County. The Museum After Dark series will include discussions, starting Feb. 22, on local women’s empowerment programs and how faith-based communities are aiding refugees and immigrants.

A film series will begin March 4, with the screening of “Refuge,” by filmmaker Josh Shelov, which documents the lives of Fatima and Oday Al-Hamidi, who arrived at a Bridgeport bus station from Syria in September 2016 with their two young children.

“Your stories are deeply inspiring to all of us,” said CIRI President and CEO Claudia Connor. “And when we think about resilience and determination and what it means to have hope when you’re in a place where you can’t really imagine what’s coming next -- yours is a lesson that we can all learn from.”

“Being able to see these people -- all of these extraordinary individuals -- puts a face to the statistics we so often hear about refugees and immigration that sometime hide, mask the horrific conditions that exist,” said Jack Leslie, chairman of Weber Shandwick and former chairman of the US African Development Foundation and United Nations High Commission for Refugees, at the opening.

According to Leslie, of 66 million displaced people worldwide, 22 million are refugees who have been forced away from home, at a rate of 30,000 people worldwide every day. Those who gain admittance to refugee camps stay an average of six to seven years. Since 1975, the United States has let in 3 million refugees, though Leslie referenced the political “sea change” in opinion over the past year or so toward displaced people seeking shelter in America.

“Since 9/11 we have allowed 785,000 refugees to come into this country. Out of 785,000, how many do you think have been arrested on terrorism charges?” Leslie asked the crowd, rhetorically.

“Three. There have been three.”

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1