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Faces of Immigrants Show Strength, Bravery

Visitors examine Artist Betsy Ashton's exhibition, "Portraits of Immigrants"
Visitors examine Artist Betsy Ashton's exhibition, "Portraits of Immigrants"
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Faces of immigrants in paintings by artist Betsy Ashton look the viewer directly in the eye. The subjects of these life-sized paintings seem ready to tell their stories of leaving home to face the problems of living in a strange land.

Visitors examine Betsy Ashton's exhibition, "Portraits of Immigrants"
Visitors examine Betsy Ashton's exhibition, "Portraits of Immigrants"

​Ashton says she created the oil paintings to answer what she calls a false political narrative about immigrants in the United States.

Her artworks can be seen at an exhibit, called “Portraits of Immigrants,” at The Riverside Church in New York City. The show ends April 21.

Artist Betsy Ashton at Riverside Church, New York
Artist Betsy Ashton at Riverside Church, New York

About 16 kilometers south from the church is Ellis Island, where 12 million newcomers landed from 1892 to 1954. On a nearby island stands the Statue of Liberty. A sign on the statue reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

The subjects of the portraits are from Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe. They include teachers, business people, a health care worker, housekeeper, actor, politician and coffee shop employee. Some are U.S. citizens. Others have proper documents, although one does not.

Fitting into a new culture

Ashton is a former news reporter. She wrote a short description of each immigrant and then put up the information next to each portrait. The stories tell of struggling to get used to a new culture and learning a new language for the promise of a better life.

Visitors examine Betsy Ashton's exhibition, "Portraits of Immigrants" at Riverside Church in New York, U.S.
Visitors examine Betsy Ashton's exhibition, "Portraits of Immigrants" at Riverside Church in New York, U.S.

One picture shows Ron Kim in his New York State Assembly office. He represents part of Queens, one of New York's five districts. Kim came to New York from South Korea when he was 6. He says it is showing the group of immigrants as a whole that makes the portraits more powerful.

Another immigrant honored in oil paint is Abdul Saboor, who taught U.S. troops the culture of his native Afghanistan before coming to the United States nearly five years ago.

Saboor is now a U.S. citizen and works for the upstate New York nonprofit group that helped resettle him. He sees Ashton’s art show as one way for Americans “to imagine themselves in my skin.”

Both Kim and Saboor said they are very mindful of the political debate over immigration since Donald Trump became president.

As a candidate in 2016, Trump talked about bad people coming from Mexico and said he wanted to build a wall on the U.S. southern border.

As president, Trump has continued to talk about illegal immigrants and has limited their pathways for legal immigration and travel. The Reuters news service says the Trump administration did not answer its request for comment on this story.


Ashton told Reuters that a story she heard at a religious service made her decide to start making her paintings. She started with “Eddie” Rigo, who operates a coffee shop she visits each morning. He fled crime-ridden Sao Paulo, Brazil, where his Italian family had been in the pizza business.

Then came Beata Szakowicz Kombel, a health care worker Ashton knows from doctor visits. She left Poland’s struggling economy in the early 1990s.

The art collection grew to 16 people. Ashton wants to find two more immigrants from troubled countries to complete the set.

The subjects include a woman called “Angel,” who came to the United States on a tourist visa 20 years ago. She does not have legal documents to stay in the country. Another painting shows Maria Solome, a Guatemalan housekeeper who came across the Rio Grande River, but recently got legal documents to stay. Another painting shows John Lam, who was poor when he arrived from Hong Kong. He now heads the Lam Group real estate investment company.

Ashton said the immigrants have many different ancestries, races and religions, but they all are fighting to solve the problems that made them leave their homes.

I’m Jill Robbins.

Demetrius Freeman and Peter Szekely reported on this story for Reuters. Jill Robbins adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

viewer – n. someone who watches or observes something

narrative – n. a story told in detail

yearning adj. an urgent longing or desire to do something

proper adj. correct; respectable; very good or excellent

district n. part of a territory or area

tourist – n. someone who makes a trip for pleasure

Are you an immigrant? How do you feel about the collection of paintings that show immigrants? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.