Immigration issues are not often looked at through the eyes of a teenager. We hear of the hardships immigrant parents face when moving to a new country. Parents struggle to balance the new world with the old one they left behind. They face language barriers and find that their traditions lose relevance with their children. So what do those children see in their new home? How do they feel? What do they dream?
Barbara Beirne set out to capture the answer with her camera.
The Smithsonian Institution of Traveling Exhibition Service recently hosted a traveling exhibition titled Becoming American: Teenagers and Immigration. The exhibition helps tell the American stories of immigrant teenagers; their struggles, hopes, and fears. You can view some of the exhibition here. Black and white portraits of teenage immigrants line the walls alongside carefully chosen statements. The photographer behind this project, Barbara Beirne, worked over six years photographing and interviewing teenagers to create this exhibition.
Beirne works independently on personal projects. Her subject matter focuses on social justice issues that interest her as an artist. She has worked in Belfast, Northern Ireland, India, Nepal, Mexico, Iceland, and Ecuador. Her work has been widely exhibited in museums and galleries, including two nation-wide tours of her series “Women of Southern Appalachia” and “Becoming American: Teenagers and Immigration.” 
Beirne first became interested in the stories of teenage immigrants while in Fort Dix, New Jersey. Over 3,000 Kosovar Albanians were brought to the United States in response to the Kosovo crisis in the ‘90s. Beirne visited the refugees weekly and found that it was the teenagers who were the most excited to talk to her. After the refugee families moved on, Beirne wondered how they would live their new lives. Where would they go? Her six year quest began in New York’s Lower East Side where she worked with teenage girls in an after school program. They developed what eventually became the model for the Becoming American exhibition. 
The teenagers portrayed within the exhibit Becoming American had a lot of control within the project. She let them choose where they wanted to be photographed, what they would wear in the photographs, and what to write in the text accompanying their portrait. It was surprising how open the teenagers were willing to be. 
Arsim Mustafa (See Image Above), age 14, was a refugee in Fort Dix, New Jerey. In his personal account he talks about seeing “people without arms, eyes, hands” and mentions his family’s return to Kosovo where they found no jobs, no money, and even no roads. They returned to California. 
Nidhi V. Pamidimukkala, age 16, stresses the duality of her life as an Indian in America. She talks of her religion and culture and how she keeps it alive in the United States. 
Marina Krickevsky, age 16, remembers why her family emigrated from Israel. “There are terrorist attacks all the time. And I do mean all the time.” 
Marcial Ramos, age 16, can be found on Beirne’s website. He chooses to comment on freedoms especially within the subject matter of his paintings.
“If I still lived in Cuba, I would probably be in jail. I feel that it is more important for an artist to have freedom of expression. In Cuba, the government encourages artists to only paint pro-revolutionary subjects or portraits of Fidel Castro. Any subject that questions the government could be dangerous for the artist, family, and even friends. Here I can paint anything I choose. Recently, the subject of my paintings has been war and its effect on people’s spirit and being. I want to investigate important subjects.” 
An underlying theme felt in these personal accounts is the idea of freedom. Immigrant parents move their families for the freedom found in a better life. Immigrant children want to live the life that they choose; free from fear and oppression. These feelings and dreams are captured beautifully within Barbara Beirne’s exhibition.
You can purchase an exhibition catalogue of Becoming American: Teenagers and Immigration directly from the photographer at firstname.lastname@example.org. All images were used with the permission of the artist.
 “Barbara Beirne Bio Page,” accessed February 4, 2014, http://www.barbarabeirne.com/bio.html.
 Kantrowitz, Anita K., “Photo Exhibition Reveals Challenges, Dreams of Teen Immigrants,” Jewish Journal, September 11, 2008, accessed February 4, 2014, http://www.jewishjournal.com/arts_in_la/article/photo_exhibition_reveals_challenges_dreams_of_teen_immigrants_20080910.
 See Source 2 above.
 “Becoming American: Teenagers and Immigration Exhibition Images—Arsim Mustafa,” accessed February 4, 2014, http://www.sites.si.edu/images/exhibits/Becoming%20American/pages/Mustafa.htm.
 “Becoming American: Teenagers and Immigration Exhibition Images—Nidhi V. Pamidimukkala,” accessed February 4, 2014, http://www.sites.si.edu/images/exhibits/Becoming%20American/pages/Pamidimukkala.htm.
 “Becoming American: Teenagers and Immigration Exhibition Images—Marina Krickevsky,” accessed February 4, 2014, http://www.sites.si.edu/images/exhibits/Becoming%20American/pages/Krichevsky.htm.
 “Becoming American: Teenagers and Immigration—Marcial Ramos,” accessed February 5, 2014, http://www.barbarabeirne.com/becoming.html.