Immigrant teens from Northeast Philly tell their stories in this new photo book

Public art exhibit “Immigrant Alphabet” now has a permanent home.

Jenny Lim and Doha Salah, NEHS grads who worked on the Immigrant Alphabet project

Jenny Lim and Doha Salah, NEHS grads who worked on the Immigrant Alphabet project

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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The stories of 18 teens from Philadelphia immigrant families will soon be available for the whole world to read.

A new photo book collects the images from the “Immigrant Alphabet” — the art project that for 10 months decorated the facade of the Municipal Services Building — and pairs them with personal narratives from students at Northeast Philadelphia High School. Each revolves around a word starting with a different letter.

“Prisoner” is the word the students collectively chose to represent P, for example. It was claimed for the project by a young man named Duvelt, who came to the U.S. from Haiti with his father in 2011.

“When I came to America, I felt like a prisoner because I felt trapped in a place I didn’t know much about,” Duvelt’s statement reads, next to a staged photo of him with hands cuffed behind his back.

The striking imagery that fills the book, called American, Border, Culture, Dreamer: The Young Immigrant Experience from A to Z , is the work of nationally-renowned photographer Wendy Ewald.

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Courtesy Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture

Ewald partnered with local nonprofit Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture to create the original public art project. Over the course of four weeks last year, the NYC-based artist and educator met with the self-selected group of students and developed the plan for the giant posters to hang outside at 15th and JFK Boulevard. (They were lined up right behind the controversial Rizzo statue, which made for an interesting juxtaposition.)

Having their work at such a central location was a thrill to the kids involved. “The thing about Center City is that it’s really diverse,” NEHS grad named Doha Salah told Billy Penn last summer, discussing her part in the project. “There’s teenagers, businesspeople, homeless people, all ages groups, all races walk by that building.”

But while the exhibit at MSB garnered a very positive reception, it was never meant to be permanent. Seeking a way to document their efforts, the collaborators decided to turn it into a book.

Benefits of publishing a print version of the project go beyond just having something for posterity. “People started talking about how to make it more accessible to people not in Philly,” said Aimee Knauss, communications associate at Al-Bustan. Now, anyone in any place can place an order online and dive into the students’ experiences.

Readers who turn to the page about the letter D will hear from George, who was brought over from Argentina by his parents when he was just 10 months old.

Writing about the word “Dreamer,” George says:

I don’t consider myself an immigrant, but that’s the label the U.S. puts on me. If people would listen, they would realize I was raised here, had my education here. This is where I’m from. …

But there’s always the what-if factor.

What if one day I get in trouble and it’s not my fault? Things can escalate very badly. And I worry about having parents that are also wanting to be legal and running the risk of them getting in trouble by accident. Then it’s, you know, pack your bags and leave. Like what if tomorrow I wake up, and I’m not in the U.S. anymore or I’m on a plane going back?

Release date for the book is Oct. 16, but it’s available for pre-order now on Amazon and via publisher Little, Brown.