Latest collection tells immigration stories; release event set for Sunday

It all started with Smitty.

Larry Smith's grandfather, Morris, came to the United States in 1914 with his family at the age of 4, escaping World War I Russia. The elder Smith eventually graduated from pharmacy school and opened a shop in South Jersey that is still open, making friends of customers and the rest of his community, to whom he became known as “Smitty.”

When the younger Smith was an adult, he asked his grandfather about his journey to and early days in America. In many ways, that conversation is at the heart of Smith's now-10-year-old Six-Word Memoirs project, which began as a prompt asking people to describe themselves using only six words. And in the case of Smith's latest Six Word book (the ninth such collection), “Six Words Fresh Off the Boat: Stories of Immigration, Identity, and Coming to America,” Smitty's story provides the basis for all of our stories.

“Everybody has a coming-to-America story. You don't have to be a recent refugee,” Smith said in a phone interview.

Smith has spent the past couple of years collecting these stories from around the country, both in person and via his website, in Six Word form. In addition, he has collected numerous backstories. Many of these stories come from Columbus, Smith's home for the past three years.

“These are stories from all over the country, but it certainly made the book more of a joy to do because so many of the stories come from my backyard,” Smith said. “There are a disproportionate number of Columbus stories in what is really a national book. I'm here, [and] knowing there is a large and strong immigrant and refugee community in Columbus, it just happened naturally.

“Hopefully, the rest of the world won't notice,” he added with a laugh.

Or maybe it will. “Six Words Fresh Off the Boat” includes six words from, among others, George Takei, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Aziz Ansari, Mila Kunis, Jimmy Carter, Jeremy Lin and more, alongside stories from Columbus youth Smith has encountered, Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS) attorney Paul Sonenberg and Nohal Alshahal of A&R Creative, which owns a number of local eateries including the Crest Gastropub and new South Campus spot Trism.

“The Alshahal family, that's an incredible story,” Smith said. Kamal and Randa Alshahal came to Columbus from Beirut, Lebanon, in 1986 with their young children and just a couple hundred dollars. Eventually, Kamal opened his own store, and his children now operate a collection of farm-to-table restaurants in their adopted hometown.

“I was a little girl” at the time, Nohal Alshahal said in an interview at Trism (her six words are “Love from Beirut Lebanon to Columbus”). “How we came to the U.S., some of the struggles — these are the things that shaped us.”

Columbus has provided a “sense of home,” Alshahal said, but being an American who has come from a different place isn't that simple. “I miss Lebanon when I'm in Columbus, and I miss Columbus when I'm in Lebanon,” she said. “I need both in my life.”

Sara Abou Rashed, a Centennial High School graduate and Denison University freshman, shared this complex notion of homeland and of identity.

“I admire that hyphen that a lot of Americans still embrace,” she said. “Whether it's African-American or Irish-American or Italian-American (Rashed herself is Arab-American or, more particularly, Palestinian-American), those things give us an identity, whether we came here 200 years ago or very recently.”

Rashed came to Columbus from Syria with her family four years ago, just prior to starting her freshman year at Centennial. “I did not speak any English when I first came here,” she said. “Becoming an American, for me, began with learning the language.”

A poet and public speaker, Rashed is, as a teenager, a veteran of TedX talks and has spoken at events with the Harmony Project at the Ohio Theatre and at several women's conferences, and she will speak at a Sept. 17 event at Trism celebrating the release of “Six Words Fresh Off the Boat.”

“Not having a place can make you open to having multiple places,” Rashed said. “I don't feel like a homeland is physical. Palestine, Syria, Columbus. The bringing of all of those different places together in my household ... we're definitely not a one-place home.”

The Sept. 17 event happens to fall on National Citizenship Day, as well as Smith's birthday. All proceeds from admission will be donated to CRIS, and a portion of the book sales will go to CRIS as well.

“I've been doing this for 10 years,” Smith said. “The heart and soul of the Six Word project is identity. ‘Who are you?' is a question that quickly leads to ‘Where are you from?'”

Smith also said the book speaks loudly in the current political climate. “I had this book deal prior to Trump getting elected. It was a great topic then, and much more topical and vital now,” he said. “This is not a political book, but I believe if you understand these stories of how we all got here, perhaps your outlook will change.”