Photographer Mila Lowe’s portraits of Island residents wearing unfamiliar outfits in familiar places hang at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. In one image, a young girl from Bulgaria holds a rose to her cheek against a silver-blue ocean. In another, a Brazilian woman drapes a green and gold flag around her shoulders, backed by a harbor. Behind each image awaits a story — the story of an origin, a life, and a language, a home oceans away on foreign terrain, and a journey from that home to this one.
The museum gave voice to some of these stories in a panel discussion led by West Tisbury town moderator Dan Waters at the Federated Church of Edgartown last Thursday. A small crowd filled the pews facing a panel of four individuals from Ms. Lowe’s and the museum’s ‘Local Immigrants’ project: Tilma Zyla Johnson from Albania, Martin Boris Takam of Cameroon, Serdar Mommadov of Turkmenistan, and Ms. Lowe, who was born in Moldova.
The project began when Ms. Lowe visited the Island home of a Bhutanese friend, Pema Greer. Having never met anyone from Bhutan, Ms. Lowe was fascinated by the culture, philosophy, and stories of Ms. Greer’s home. Ms. Greer put on an intricately woven traditional Bhutanese costume, Ms. Lowe took out her camera, and the two women made a series of portraits around the Island, telling stories about their respective cultures all the while.
“You meet someone here and have a common language, because people who are from different parts of the world — we have the same struggles. We feel each other on a different level,” Ms. Lowe told the audience. “We always would share these stories with each other. But how many of those stories have other people living on the Island heard?”
Mr. Waters, who was raised in São Paulo, Brazil, opened the discussion by asking how each panelist came to the Island, and when it became home. All four had worked summers as J-1 visa students, on the recommendation of friends and mentors in their home countries. They were drawn in first by the excitement and beauty of the summertime, and then by the hand of someone from the local community. Ms. Johnson arrived earliest, in 2008.
“It was so rewarding,” she said of her first summer here. “I improved my English, and made so many friends.” Ms. Johnson spent a few consecutive summers on the Island before meeting her West Tisbury–born husband, John Johnson, and deciding to stay. She now works at the Edgartown National Bank.
Ms. Lowe, too, married an Islander, Julius Lowe, after working here in 2011 and studying literature in Boston. Ms. Johnson and Ms. Lowe credit their husbands with making the Island home for them through stories of their Vineyard childhoods and by welcoming them into their friends and families.
Mr. Takam worked with the architect Jamie Weisman when he came to the Island in 2010, and returned after receiving his master’s degree from a Moscow university. “[Jamie and I] did a lot. We went sailing on his beautiful boat, and he’s the one who showed me the spirit of the Island,” said Mr. Takam.
Mr. Mommadov found a home at Back Door Donuts, where he has worked in the kitchen for seven years.
“Once I got to know that people sometimes like to talk in the line, I stopped rushing,” he said. That line is where Mr. Mommadov met his wife.
In an aside to the audience, Mr. Waters said, “Next time you’re waiting in line for a doughnut, just know that it’s because he’s talking to someone.”
Though many foreign students become acquainted with the Island through the summer, the panelists agreed that they had to weather a winter here before they could call it home.
“In Albania, everyone knows you and greets you, everyone asks you how your parents are doing … It’s so nice to be back in that environment [in the off-season],” said Ms. Johnson.
One member of the audience asked why some international communities tend to keep to themselves, and Ms. Lowe guessed it had to do with the difficulty of learning a foreign language. Mr. Waters recalled watching part of the American community in São Paulo, which made little effort to learn Portuguese and consequently became insular. And as fluently as they spoke with the audience and one another, each panelist had a story to share about the perils of learning English.
“I remember the day when I came up with my first pun,” said Ms. Lowe. “I called my husband and said, ‘I came up with a really good pun!’ He said, ‘Oh, that is a good pun!’ And then he said, ‘In a different way, Mila, there’s a second pun that you hadn’t thought of …”
Ms. Lowe likened the process of learning a new language to being a child again. “It’s like you have a new life, because you have to start … from the beginning,” she said. “When you don’t know the language on a very advanced level, you can’t really be yourself.”
Yet it’s out of these challenges posed by life in a foreign country that tight-knit friendships in the immigrant and international community seem to surface.
“I have a few Albanian friends on the Island who know the same traditions and the same culture, who understand why I do things a certain way, or why I can’t tell my mother certain things [about my life here],” said Ms. Johnson.
Mr. Takam told the audience, “I am the only Cameroonian here, and I don’t feel lonely because I have different friends from different countries. But,” he added, “you can always miss home.”
To alleviate homesickness, Ms. Johnson said that she turns to the Albanian community for recipes and ingredients to remember her country through food. Ms. Lowe shares beloved books by Russian and Moldovan authors with her Island friends. And each panelist immerses themselves in the local community.
“You get to put all your time in the winter toward projects for things you really care for that you know will make the Island better … It becomes your own,” said Ms. Johnson.
Mr. Mommadov was attracted to the power citizens possess to change their community and country in the United States.
“I come from a country where everything is decided for everyone. And I don’t want to go into politics, but you know, you have the opportunity to take responsibility for your life here,” he said. “I really love that you have the opportunity to change where you live. I feel that it’s everyone’s responsibility.”
Politics, by the way, played no role in Ms. Lowe’s plans for the project, nor did it enter into the discussion last Thursday. Rather, her images and the subjects she introduces through them are reminders that the Island’s diversity is a hidden treasure, and that if you start a conversation with the local doughnut seller, architect, or bank teller, you will find the world within these shores.
The ‘Local Immigrants Project’ exhibit will be on display at the museum until Aug. 23.