Poughkeepsie, along with the larger Hudson Valley, has a long history of housing refugees. In order to preserve their stories of flight from violence and repression and of finding refuge in the United States, Vassar’s History Department, along with Vassar Refugee Solidarity, organized “Migration, Exile, Refuge: Stories from the Hudson Valley,” an exhibition taking place from May 13 to June 25, 2017, at the Glebe House at 635 Main Street in downtown Poughkeepsie.
The project began as History Department Chair and Vassar Refugee Solidarity co-founder Maria Höhn propelled discussions on how history interacts with the issues of migration and refugees. “We wanted to look at how we may be able to talk more about these issues, especially in the current political climate, so we started with asking local artists from Poughkeepsie and the Hudson Valley to create art in response to these topics,” explained Nikki Lohr ’17, one of the organizers of the exhibition. From there, the project expanded to present the history of refugees in the Hudson Valley through artwork, photography, stories and documents, all of which are currently on display in the exhibition, which centers mostly on refugees from World War II.
Vassar Refugee Solidarity co-founder Anish Kanoria ’18 clarified how the exhibition relates to the organization’s initiative: “It highlights our goal of engaging with the local community and emphasizing that this is not something that’s ‘out there’ but something that has been part of our lives and communities since the beginning.”
In order to present people’s personal narratives, Vassar students interviewed several individuals in the Hudson Valley community, including refugees, immigrants and their relatives. Some individuals spoke of their parents’ experiences in Japanese internment camps, provoking thoughts on what it means to be displaced and imprisoned within one’s country due to race. One story delved into the plight of a German Jew who fled from Germany to the United Kingdom during WWII. However, because of his German identity, he was placed in an internment camp in London.
To connect these stories back to our campus, the curatorial team found documents within the Vassar Archives revealing that during WWII, Vassar housed refugees as well, and some of whom even went on to be employed as professors. Some of the documents on display at the exhibition are original letters written by of these refugees. Lohr shared the story of Ernst Krenek, for example, a famous Austrian composer of Czech origin who sought refuge from the Nazi regime in the United States in 1938 and taught music at Vassar.
Students also explored the stories of refugees and immigrants who came to the United States in historical contexts beyond WWII. For example, they interviewed people whose parents witnessed the Armenian genocide during World War I, as well as a woman from Morocco who related her past experiences to the present as an immigrant.
Lohr elucidated the message that they hope to convey through the project: “By no means do we claim to have told the whole story of refugees in the Hudson Valley. However, we see this as a start of a conversation, one that prompts our audience to think about…immigration and exile…and what exactly that entails.”
Lohr further explained their hopes to eventually expand their research into the experiences of Latin American immigrants—of which there are a great deal in Poughkeepsie—as well as of Syrian refugees, if it is safe enough to do so. The team actively decided to avoid collecting the stories of current undocumented immigrants for this exhibition despite the importance of hearing those narratives, because under the current administration, it could very well pose a safety issue for them.
In closing, Lohr mentioned, “Think about if you had 10 minutes to leave your home and put your entire life in a backpack. Many of us have been fortunate enough to never experience this, but it is extremely important to think about those who have gone through it in the past, and those who are still going through it in this world…and it’s imperative to recognize that alienation and anguish.