Nfld. & Labrador

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

On Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of Americans became instant refugees, and Canadians took them in, as told in the new Broadway musical Come From Away. Opening arms to those in need is a message some say has been lost in the U.S.

'I think this musical can be the jump-start to the heart we all need'

The Canadian-made Broadway musical Come From Away tells the story of the people of Gander, Nfld., who opened their hearts and homes to stranded airplane passengers on 9/11. (Matthew Murphy)

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.

It was a time when Americans were refugees, and they were there by the grace of God.- Irene Sankoff

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.

This photo provided by Des Dillon, of Gander, shows the last flight to leave the town after the passengers were stranded there for five days following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the U.S. (Associated Press)

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.

American movie and television producer Mark Burg (Bull Durham, Two and a Half Men) caught the Broadway premiere of Come From Away on Sunday night. (Darryl Murphy/CBC)

"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.

Kevin Tuerff was so profoundly affected by the kindness shown to him in Newfoundland during 9/11 that he has written a book about his experience and is donating some of the proceeds to a refugee group in Gander. (Darryl Murphy/CBC)

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.

Actor Rodney Hicks, who plays Bob and other characters in Come From Away, says the show sends a timely message. (Darryl Murphy/CBC)

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.


Ariana Kelland

Investigative reporter

Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's. She is working as a member of CBC's Atlantic Investigative Unit.

With files from Angela Antle