Open arms, closed doors: Why Come From Away is striking a chord

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Open arms, closed doors: Why Come From Away is striking a chord

On Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of men, women and children were forced to enter a foreign country without much more than the clothes on their backs.


Confused, and without food and shelter, those nearly 7,000 people began to feel the warm embrace of the people living in a strange new town they'd been made to discover.

A new Canadian-made Broadway musical, Come From Away, tells that story.

Originally meant to articulate the compassion and kindness Newfoundlanders showed to strangers from all over the globe during 9/11, Come From Away has taken on a new and arguably more important message in the current U.S. climate, where doors are starting to close for those stranded and in need. 

"It's interesting because it was a time when Americans were refugees and they were there by the grace of God," said Irene Sankoff, who makes up half of the duo behind the humble musical.

Speaking ahead of the show's premiere this past Sunday, Sankoff said it was wise for the people of Gander and surrounding areas to open their arms to those who were stuck in transit while U.S. airspace shut down in the days after the attacks.

"It was a smart and it was a brave thing. They could have had 7,000 angry people, and they didn't," she said.

"Instead, they have lifelong friends," chimed in Sankoff's writing partner and husband, David Hein.

'If only Donald Trump could see this play'

Outside Manhattan's Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre where Come From Away made its debut, the current political state in that country wasn't far from mind.

"Come From Away is spectacular. If only Donald Trump could see this play, maybe he would change his tune about the borders," said American producer Mark Burg, who attended opening night.

"Welcoming strangers with open arms [as] opposed to keeping them away just ... it says what should be happening in our country now." 

The U.S. president's revised travel ban restricts people from six Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.

Visa processing for travellers from Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Syria and Libya will be suspended for 90 days once the ban goes into effect on Thursday.

Giving back

If there's any doubt kind deeds and openness can improve the world, speak with Kevin Tuerff, writer of the book Channel the Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11. 

The once business-first CEO and founder of EnviroMedia Inc., a communications firm in Texas, was on the second of 38 planes that landed at Gander International Airport 16 years ago, and inspired a character in the Broadway production.

Those couple of days forever changed the way Tuerff looks at the world, and what he puts out in it.

Every year, he gives his staff $100 each and asks them to do good deeds for strangers to honour those who died on 9/11.

"My country is divided like I've never seen before, and I believe this musical can really heal if people will be open to it because it's all about kindness to strangers," said Tuerff at his book launch last Saturday.

Opening your arms to those who need it is a sentiment that has lost its way, Tuerff said, adding Come From Away now holds a broader message.

"I think this musical is the jump-start to the heart we need," he said.

In keeping with his message, Tuerff is giving 25 per cent of the proceeds of his book to the Gander Refugee Outreach group.

It's not just those viewing the show who see the timely message that Come From Away brings audiences.

Rodney Hicks, who plays grounded passenger "Bob," hopes the musical's message travels far beyond Broadway.

"I believe it's the universe's design, really, and all we can do is be there and tell the truth every night," he said.

"This show is bigger than any of us. I want to share this with the world."

Hicks and his castmates will share it with Justin Trudeau, when Canada's prime minister and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, take in the show Wednesday night.