But when documentary photographer Barbara Beirne asked him about his homeland, he told her how scared he had been before he came to America.
"In my country, it was always war. I saw people dying. I saw people without arms, eyes, hands -- without heads," Mustafa said. "We finally got away, but I was upset."
On a winter day, just four months after arriving from Ukraine, a 15-year-old girl stood beneath low-hanging gray clouds on a deserted stretch of Coney Island Beach, amusement park rides visible far behind her. Engulfed in winter garb, holding a scarf to her neck against the wind, her eyes are fixed on a point in the distance over the ocean. She told Beirne that she missed "Ukraine and nature," where everyone in her village worked in the fields, then picked and ate apples together.
"Is it true that you can't pick apples from trees here?" she asked.
These teens' impressions of their homelands -- from Mustafa's wartime horrors to the young Ukrainian woman's pastoral idyll -- are just two examples of the wide-ranging sentiments expressed by 59 teens included in the exhibition, "Becoming American: Teenagers and Immigration," opening Oct. 17 at the Skirball Cultural Center. Organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), "Becoming American" premiered March 10, 2007, at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum and will travel to various venues around the country through 2011. The teenagers' stories, as told through their own words, appear alongside Beirne's evocative photographic portraits, drawing viewers into a maelstrom of the teens' hopes, fears and dreams as they face a new life in a foreign land.
Beirne, who studied photography with Philip Perkis and Robert Mapplethorpe, has amassed an impressive body of work over the past 25 years. She has worked in India, Nepal and Ecuador; has documented the lives of children in war-torn Belfast, Ireland, and has had a prior exhibition, "Serving Home and Community: The Women of Appalachia," tour the United States from 1999-2003, also through SITES.
Beirne first became interested in teenage immigrants while on a magazine assignment in her home state of New Jersey in 1999. More than 3,000 Kosovar Albanians had been brought to the United States in a humanitarian response to the crisis in Kosovo; hundreds of them were housed at Fort Dix, N.J., awaiting resettlement assistance. Visiting them weekly, Beirne discovered that of the refugees, it was the teenagers who were the most willing -- excited, even -- to talk to the news media.
"Many of them spoke some English, and they wanted to learn more. They were wonderful, and I got to know many of them over the course of the weeks," Beirne said.
But over time, the families would move on, and Beirne was disappointed that she couldn't follow their lives after they left Fort Dix. Many had come to this country with very few possessions, and she wondered how they would navigate "the long journey ahead ... with just one plastic bag filled with [their] belongings."
Beirne's curiosity propelled her on a self-described "quest" that turned into six years of photographing and interviewing teenagers and creating this exhibition. She began at the venerable Grand Street Settlement on New York's Lower East Side, which has provided services for immigrants and refugees -- including the waves of Irish, Jewish and Italian immigrants in the early 20th century -- since its founding in 1916. Working with a group of teenage girls in an after-school program, Beirne -- with input from the girls -- developed what became her modus operandi for the project.
"They had very strong feelings ... they wanted to choose where to be photographed, what to wear; some weren't sure they wanted to write ... one wanted to include her poems," Beirne said. Giving the teens options, including letting them choose which questions they'd answer, was of the utmost importance to Beirne; she wanted to ensure they were an integral part of the project.
After Grand Street, Beirne traveled to schools, resettlement agencies and faith-based organizations around the country. The teens she interviewed were mostly first-generation immigrants who had been brought -- or sent -- to the United States by their families as they fled wars, disease, political or religious persecution or poverty.
"They really trusted me with their stories," said Beirne, who was initially surprised by their openness. Although the teens were keenly aware of the difficulties their parents had faced and continue to face, "they really wanted people to know that it takes courage, but that they want to be here, they want to be good Americans, that they want to be accepted."
Beirne's interest in photography started in her childhood. Growing up, the highlight of her week was each Friday's delivery of LIFE magazine with its large photo spreads. She was also inspired by early and mid-20th century photographers, such as Dorothea Lange and Lewis Hine, whose works were "beautiful" but also served as poignant social commentary.
For "Becoming American," however, Beirne believes the teens' statements were a crucial addition to her photos: "The text is very important ... the subjects feel that it's important that they have their say."
As it turns out, "their say" is by turns heartbreaking, hopeful, horrific and inspiring.
The teens struggle to balance their two worlds and cultures in order to please both their parents and themselves. And while each story is unique, the teens share an awareness of life's greatest challenges -- often of unspeakable, inhuman, acts -- that most of their native-born American peers haven't had to face.
And since their arrival in America, these young newcomers also share a sense of responsibility and gratitude. As Lili Shek, a first-generation immigrant from China, wrote:
"I have seen the pain of [my parents] leaving their beloved land upon which their memories are deeply rooted. I have seen their struggles ... to survive in America. But I have also been witness to the joys of accomplishment, not only for myself, but for my family, as well. We bring our culture with us and share it. Truly, it has been a bittersweet journey."
"Becoming American: Teenagers and Immigration," will be at the Skirball Cultural Center from Oct. 17 through Jan. 25, 2009. For more information, including exhibition-related films, lectures and other events, visit www.skirball.org.
All photos by Barbara Beirne