Galesburg’s immigrant community is continuing to grow each year, as more individuals from countries from all over the world are hoping to call the city home. To illustrate this often hidden demographic, a new exhibition titled “The Air We Breathe” aims to tell the stories of those who have made it to America.
The idea for the project stems from program director Chelsea Castillo Macek, who works for the Literacy Coalition at Carl Sandburg College. According to Castillo Macek, the idea was inspired by “working one on one with many in the immigrant community and getting to know their stories.” Through her work at Carl Sandburg, Castillo Macek has noticed a “disconnect” between the existing community and those new to it. Creating “The Air We Breathe” seemed like one way to help bridge the gap.
Castillo Macek pointed out that those who travelled thousands of miles to get here are, in many cases, very well-educated and strong-willed people, though the non-immigrant community is sometimes unaware of this. For many of the immigrants Castillo Macek works with, the means of living back home were often just too difficult to keep living with.
Stories of fleeing war-torn countries and searching for a better life in the United States are just some of the exhibition’s narratives, which are told through a series of portraits taken by Castillo Macek. Excerpts from the subjects accompany the photographs, which speak to the experience of migrating to the United States. In addition to the exhibition, Castillo Macek will be releasing a daily video on “The Air We Breathe” Facebook page, which will continue to tell the stories of the participants.
The story of 36-year-old Komi Adamessi is one of several immigrants featured in the exhibition, as he moved from the small African nation of Togo to the United States back in 2011. Once he got his visa and found a place to stay in Chicago, Adamessi made no hesitation in planning for the future, applying for a job at a meat-processing plant in Monmouth. There weren’t enough jobs in Chicago at the time, and according to Adamessi, “it made things easier for myself, coming to this area.”
Adamessi spoke for many of his fellow émigré when he pointed out that “[living] in Africa, or a lot of other countries around the world… young people want to come because of the story we hear of the United States, all the possibility here… [as I’ve seen] here, there are people from lots of different countries and not only from Africa; I believe those people have the same dream we have in Africa.”
Three months ago Adamessi quit his job and embarked on pursuing his dream of starting his own nonprofit organization. Adamessi’s organization, Universal Business and Social Development, currently seeks to “help immigrants for their integration.” For the future, Adamessi is aiming high. “I can help create jobs in poor countries and help young people to find the purpose in their life,” he said.
While some sense a disconnect between the immigrant community and the rest of Galesburg, Adamessi remarked, “[the community is] open to us and tries to help us, and I think they’re so helpful here…Galesburg is nice, the people are nice; it’s a nice area.”
20-year-old participant Osmar Sequeira, who attends and plays soccer for Carl Sandburg, moved to the United States from Nicaragua when he was 15. He hopes that the project will bring people from different cultures closer together. “Just because you’re from another country doesn’t mean you’re that different. I want us to be like a family,” he said.
Adamessi’s story, Sequeira’s story and others, inspired Castillo Macek to bring the stories of other immigrants to the forefront of her project and to the people of Galesburg. “I’m hoping that it’s an eye opener, but in a good way to our community,” said Castillo Macek of the project. “I’m hoping that it allows people to see the diversity of our international community, to hear their stories.”
Free to the public, “The Air We Breathe” will be displayed at The Box on Kellogg Street until Oct. 4, and will later be shown at the Beanhive until Nov. 1. On Oct. 22 at 6 p.m., Castillo Macek will be at the Beanhive to answer any questions about the project.