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Phone Booths on Display in NYC Tell 70 Immigrant Stories

Rarely do New Yorkers stop and pause during their busy days for anything, let alone to enter the empty shell of a phone booth.

But Afghan-American artist Aman Mojadidi is giving people in Times Square a reason to climb inside the outdated glass boxes. And no, it’s not to charge a mobile phone.

Mojadidi, 46, has repurposed and rewired three phone booths with recorded interviews from 70 immigrants who moved to New York.

The installation, “Once Upon a Place,” aims to celebrate immigrants and remind people of their humanity, he told artnet News.

“I wanted people to understand that cities like New York, great metropolitan cities around the world, are largely built by the immigrants who come there, work there, settle there, live there,” he said. “None of that should be anything that’s feared, but something that should be celebrated and accepted.”

The exhibit is free and open to New York’s public. Visitors who brave the crowds at Times Square can hear the stories of the personal journeys, thoughts, and opinions of immigrants from 26 different countries.

For the project, Mojadidi spent three years tracking down immigrants to share their stories and then spent months recording interviews with them in both English and their native languages, according to Reuters.

“We have to understand that immigration should always be in the DNA of the United States because that’s what truly made our country what it is,” a recorded interview from the project said.

The installation opened on June 27, just one day before some parts of US President Donald Trump’s travel ban on six Muslim countries will go into effect.

Mojadidi, however, welcomed the timing.

“I’m quite pleased to see ‘Once Upon a Place’ realized in this moment of anti-immigrant hysteria,” Mojadidi told artnet News. “There’s so much going on in the terms of raids and deportations, I couldn’t have asked for a better time for the project to have happened.”

Additionally, New York is the perfect place for “Once Upon a Place,” according to Times Square Arts, an organization that collaborates with artists to place art in the center of New York City and helped install Mojadidi’s project.

In New York, more than a third of the city's residents are foreign-born and close to 800 languages are spoken across the city’s five boroughs, TSA said.

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Themes of migration and immigrant identity are not new for Mojadidi. Most of his artwork focuses on globalization, conflict, and identity, and he draws on his own personal experiences as an Afghan-American and cultural studies, he told VICE last year.

“The world has become so globalized,” Mojadidi said. “Trying to stick to these old ideas of borders is something that’s just not realistic anymore.”

“Once Upon a Place” will be on display June 27 through Sept. 5.