Michelle Martin

Come from Away

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

On the Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend, I sat by myself in a crowded theater just a block or so from Times Square in Manhattan.

After traveling to New York with my oldest, who was helping a friend move, I played tourist while they reconnected with college friends. I decided at the last minute to try to catch a Broadway matinee, and “Come from Away” hit the sweet spot of having single seats available for something approaching a reasonable price and being highly recommended by friends who had seen it in New York and touring in Chicago.

The show, which will run more than 5½ years on Broadway before it closes in October, is based on the true story of the nearly 7,000 people who were stranded in and around small town of Gander, Newfoundland, as planes were grounded and U.S. airspace was closed for days following the 9/11 attacks.

It starts from the perspective of the townspeople, as it dawns on them that they will have to find a way to accommodate thousands of unexpected guests, guests who never wanted to wash up on an island northeast of the Canadian mainland, many of whom didn’t know what happened when they were finally let off the 38 planes that landed in Gander more than 12 hours after the attacks.

The people on the ground spent those 12 hours setting up shelters in schools and campgrounds, cooking and dropping off food, donating clothing for people who couldn’t retrieve their luggage, even rounding up dog and cat food for the pets in the hold.

When the people got off the planes, they were exhausted, hungry, cranky, scared, and once they saw the news, shocked and horrified. They turned away from many of the resources the locals had provided in search of phones they could use to call their loved ones, and many were suspicious of the overbearing friendliness of their hosts.

It brought back memories of 9/11, of course, only a week before the 21st anniversary, but it also brought to mind the migrants from the southern border of the United States who just that week had started to arrive in Chicago by bus.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has been sending people who turned up at border crossings in his state, many of them seeking asylum, to Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago, all cities governed by Democrats, as a political statement about border control. While Abbott has released statements saying people have boarded the buses voluntarily, some of them reportedly don’t know where they are going or what to expect when they get here.

So far, the city of Chicago and its people, as well as religious and non-profit organizations, have been working to live up to the area’s welcoming reputation, organizing food, shelter, clothing, medical care, legal assistance, transportation to other cities for people trying to meet family or friends.

But for many of the people arriving now, this is not a quick stop. They’ll need more permanent housing, jobs to support themselves, schools for their children.

The test for us will not be how we welcome people for the first week or even the first month; the test will be how we open our community; expand our definition of who is part of “us,” instead of casting the newcomers as “them”; remember that all of us, at one point or another, have come from away.


  • immigrants
  • family life