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Tuesday, April 8, 2003

Pupils question Ellis Island 'immigrant'

By Linda Trimble | News-Journal Education Writer

ORMOND BEACH — The brawny but penniless Russian immigrant Boris Krasnikov got a break from the Pathways Elementary School "judges" who agreed to let him stay on American soil.

Should he stay or go?

Actor Dennis Heaphy, portraying Russian immigrant Boris Krasnikov, answers questions during a re-enactment of an Ellis Island review board by Pathways Elementary School pupils. Three re-enactments last Thursday were part of a school multicultural awareness project. In the re-enactments, three different "immigration review boards" of pupils agreed Krasnikov should be allowed into the country. (Photo: News-Journal/DAVID TUCKER)

Portrayed by New York City actor Dennis Heaphy, Krasnikov was the central figure in a recent re-enactment of a 1910 Ellis Island immigration hearing that was part of Pathways' weeklong multicultural awareness project.

Heaphy presents the re-enactment -- based on Krasnikov's real-life case -- six months out of the year at the Ellis Island Museum of American Immigration in New York and takes it to schools in the off season. He performed at Pathways while visiting area relatives.

The program gives schoolchildren a chance to learn first hand about the experiences faced by some of the more than 12 million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island in New York Harbor between 1892 and 1954 in search of a better life.

It fit right in with the Pathways project's goal to help children understand the experiences, feelings and cultures of those who are different from them.

"I think the more you know about something, the more you develop a respect for it," said Celestine Hinson, the teacher who spearheaded the multicultural awareness project. "This gives them an opportunity to learn about other people."

Pathways has only a small number of children born in other countries, but a substantial number are enrolled countywide. About 1,900 of Volusia schools' 62,000 students are enrolled in English for Speakers of Other Languages programs. A little more than half of them were born outside the U.S., while the rest are children of recently arrived immigrants. They're from 95 countries and speak 56 languages.

The Pathways pupils took their jobs at the mock hearing seriously, with a few selected to serve as judges and hearing officers and the rest getting into the act by asking Krasnikov about his health, criminal background, finances and prospects for a fresh start.

When it was over, Krasnikov won the right to stay in the United States three times over in separate programs for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders.

"I thought he should stay because he worked hard and he should have a good life and he sounded nice," explained 9-year-old Micheal Cotton, a fourth-grader.

Krasnikov won a sympathy vote from Micheal's classmate, 10-year-old Felicia Warren. "He sounded as if he had a real miserable time on the boat and that shouldn't be wasted," she said.

Krasnikov had recounted his trip from his Russian home by horseback, carriage and boat, including a two-month trans-Atlantic voyage below deck with hundreds of other seasick immigrants. He was bound for New York, where his brother Leon awaited his arrival.

"You really got to feel the immigrants' emotions," said fifth-grader Alexandra Hill, 11.

The children also found some modern-day parallels to Krasnikov's experiences. Questions about immigrants' health and military service are justified, the youngsters said, in light of today's concerns about the worldwide spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and terrorist attacks.

Fifth-grader Brandon Levoy worries about foreign nationals providing anti-American intelligence to potential terrorists. "They could be watching our news and they could know where the most populated areas are, like theme parks," the 11-year-old said.

But third-grader Shane Silvernail, 8, thinks tighter immigration rules imposed by the U.S. since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks are a mistake. "I think we should let (people) in because we could have more farmers and doctors to grow more crops and make people feel better," he said.

Third-grader Stephanie Abelquist said the United States should continue to welcome immigrants such as those who poured through Ellis Island. "It's a free country and they shouldn't have to live in a place they don't feel free," said the 10-year-old. "Everybody should feel free and we should all live together in one big country and let there be peace."