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Ellis Island: Thousands of Greeks’ First Sight of America

“At the New York Harbor they put us in quarantine for a day and then they took us to Ellis Island. There they treated us like sheep to examine us.

“We were all frightened that they would not find us completely healthy and turn us back. My father called Ellis Island ‘the island of tears and fear’.”

These are the recollections of Greek immigrant Efterpi Doukaki, talking to Greek TV show Reportage Without Borders.

The first Greeks who arrived in the New World had to go through Ellis Island, which became the designated immigration station for arrivals in New York City on April 11, 1890.

They felt a mixture of hope and fear: hope that they will find a better life in America and fear that they would have to live in an unknown world that would not necessarily be welcoming to them.

Between 1892 and 1924, more than half a million Greeks went through Ellis Island, and it is estimated that almost half of them returned to Greece sometime. Many Americans did not seem to like them at first, with slurs such as “greaseballs” and “dirty Greeks” being hurled at the new arrivals.

In the South, Greeks were targeted by the Ku Klux Klan, while the racial laws that applied to African-American people at the time applied to them too, as they were not considered ‘white’.

Yet, they would have to go through Ellis Island before they experienced the New World. Whatever came next, most of the Greek migrants who arrived on the island felt happy to be there. The promise of a better life was stronger than the hardships ahead.

“I saw tears of joy, a lot of them. I saw tears of regret,” Doukissa Papadakis recounted in  Reportage Without Borders. Then it was the medical examinations. When there were indications of illness, the doctors wrote a letter on the person’s coat with chalk and sent them for additional exams.

The letter was a quick diagnosis. For example N stood for neck, H for the heart and X for paranoia and mental illness.

More exhaustive examinations were conducted if a serious disease was diagnosed. In such cases, the migrants were banned from entering the United States and were sent back.  Many stayed on the island for over a week until they heard the verdict on their case.

Pregnant women were detained on the island so their children would not be born in America and get citizenship. More than 350 children were born on the island and 3,500 people died before it was decided whether they were eligible to stay or not.

The doctors worked in groups of two and used the six-second system. At the time it was considered that an experienced specialist could determine the overall health condition of an individual after examining him for six seconds. If everything was OK, as happened in most cases, the migrants would take the coveted paper.

On Ellis Island many migrants received new names and new identities. If the state employees who worked on an island could not pronounce a name or thought that the migrant would face difficulties with their original names, they would give them new, shorter, ‘Americanized’ names.

When the island opened its gates, there was a major change in migration to America. Arrivals from northern and western Europe (Germany, Ireland, Britain and the Scandinavian countries) dwindled and more and more migrants from southeast Europe arrived.

Among this new generation of migrants were many Jews, Italians, Greeks, Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Serbs, Slovaks, as well as many non-Europeans from Syria, Turkey and Armenia. Everyone was hoping for a better life in the ‘Promised Land’, away from war, hunger and persecution.

Ellis Island stopped being the first “migrant station” in 1954. It is estimated that 20 million people passed through the island during its operation. It is also estimated that about 40 percent of all current U.S. citizens had at least one of their ancestors go through Ellis Island.

After Ellis Island, prospective migrants to the United States went through their respective consulates for migration procedures.

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