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Ellis Island: Thousands of Greeks’ First Sight of America

Ellis Island
Major immigration facilities, looking east – Ellis Island, New York Harbor. Credit: Wikipedia/Public domain.

All the Greeks who arrived in the New World as of April 11, 1890 had to pass through Ellis Island, which became the designated immigration station for arrivals in New York City after that date.

Almost all immigrants to the United States came through New York Harbor, first getting a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, just off the island, although there were other immigration points as well, such as Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Francisco, and New Orleans.

The Greeks passing through Ellis Island felt a mixture of hope and fear: hope that they would 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.

“At 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 Euterpe Doukaki when she was interviewed on the Greek television show Reportage Without Borders.

A new opportunity for the Greek people

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

In the South, Greeks were even targeted by the Ku Klux Klan.

Whatever might befall them next, most of the Greek migrants who arrived on Ellis Island felt happy to be there. The promise of a better life was stronger than the hardships they knew they would face ahead. “I saw tears of joy, a lot of them. I saw tears of regret,” Doukissa Papadakis recounted in  Reportage Without Borders.

Then there were 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.

Ellis Island
Immigrants waiting to be examined at Ellis Island. Credit: Wikipedia/Public domain.

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 proper and thereby acquire citizenship. More than 350 children were born on the island — and 3,500 people in total died before it was decided whether they were eligible to stay in the US 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 just six seconds. If everything was OK, as happened in most cases, the migrants would be handed the coveted paper allowing them to stay.

Ellis Island: The first migrant station

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, and 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 immigration point for New York in 1954. It is estimated that a total of 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 closed its immigration center, prospective migrants to the United States went through their respective consulates for migration procedures. Now, Ellis Island has been completely restored and functions as a museum, which recounts the immigrant experience.

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