Today’s Immigrants Learn From Yesterday’s

By Henry Street Settlement

Above: Present-day New York City immigrants contributed their stories to the Tenement Museum’s Your Story, Our Story exhibit.

When Halina Kaczmarczyk, a poet from Poland, and Juana Bailon, an immigrant from Mexico, enrolled in Henry Street Settlement’s English languages classes, they didn’t know that their stories might become part the Tenement Museum’s permanent collection of immigrant stories. But that’s exactly what happened for them—and nearly 20 fellow students—thanks to the work of Katie Vogel, Henry Street’s public historian.

Katie began working with approximately 60 ESL students in January 2018. She spoke in their classrooms at the Settlement’s Workforce Development Center and arranged for the groups to attend the Tenement Museum’s “Shared Journeys,” a workshop for immigrant adults to learn about the experiences of New York City immigrants in the past and to practice English in a new setting.

Working with Henry Street’s ESOL Coordinator Richard Verner and instructor Ellie Schaffer, Katie strove to connect the stories of immigrants of the past to the students’ modern-day immigrant experience. Over the course of multiple class sessions, students wrote narratives about objects of significance to their families and about their journeys to the United States. Now those stories are part of the Tenement Museum’s online collection, providing insight into the New York City immigrant experience in 2018 for generations to come.

The program was valuable, not only to The Tenement Museum, but also to Settlement and its students. Said Richard Verner, “We have always tried to teach the connection between past and present to our students. This year, they had the opportunity to expand the educational value of that experience by writing stories about objects of importance to them.”

Henry Street’s Workforce Development Center offers ESL classes to approximately 300 immigrants each year. Katie worked with the beginner and intermediate English-language classes, as well as with the advanced job-readiness classes.

Above: At a ceremony in June 2018 at the Tenement Museum, ESL students shared their stories aloud with their classmates, families, and friends.

Halina, the poet from Poland, shared the story of her diary, one of the few objects that made the journey with her to America. Halina has written in the diary every day since she was a teenager: “I need those memories like the air, the sun, water. They give me strength to go on.”

Juana, who emigrated from Mexico, wrote about a colorful jar that sits at the center of her dining room table: “My mother gave it to me for the Day of the Dead holiday when I visit Mexico. This jar reminds me of Day of the Dead, which is important to my culture. It reminds me of my family, father, and friends.”

Two of Juana’s children, who were present while their mother read her story at the Tenement Museum celebration, affirmed the significance of the holiday in their household.

To read these stories and more, visit

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