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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Refuge in Disney World?

One of the things I really like about UMass Boston is the rich diversity of its student population. I have met people from almost every corner of the world: Haiti, Uganda, Sudan, Canada, China, and the list goes on. What I tend to forget is that there are quite a few students who were forced to leave their beloved homes, their communities, and often even their families behind. Violent conflicts, political, ethnic or religious persecution force them to leave in a rush and to look for refuge in a foreign country. They become refugees.

As part of this year’s Social Theory Forum, three UMB students reflected on their own experiences of displacement, exclusion, and the need of belonging. Diego, a Sociology major, who fled Colombia because of corruption, violence and political instability, had this vision of America as a bigger version of Disney World when he was a kid. He thought of it as a place where everything was nice and clean – a place where dreams can come true. But when he got here, he soon realized that this was not the magic kingdom he had expected. His castle suddenly resembled a prison, especially when he remembers his middle and high school years. “I was not only an immigrant, but also a minority in school.” Mickey Mouse was not so welcoming after all.

Gifty had similar experiences. Her and her family come from Ghana. When she arrived in Massachusetts, it was not easy for her to get used to the new environment. “I come from a country where everybody is black,” she explains. Here, she went to an almost all-white high school. Gifty was not only an immigrant, a foreigner, but also racial outsider. When she discovered that her ‘World History’ class included stories from the Americas over Europe to Asia, but not a piece of African history, it contributed even more to her sense of alienation. Fortunately, in Gifty’s case, this negative feeling turned into productive awareness as she started questioning everything in order to understand the world around her.

Then it is Safia’s turn.”In Somalia, everybody knew my grandfather,” she remembers. “Here, nobody even knows my country.” While she makes jokes about an American woman who thought that Somalia was neighboring Brazil, the sad truth about her story becomes visible. How can you develop a sense of home or belonging in a place where people don’t even know your country?

Being not only a black immigrant woman, but also a Muslim, Safia explains how there are several layers which divide her from the majority of the people. She recounts a story of a girl who wanted to know what color Safia’s hair was, since she is wearing a headscarf. Not sure whether that girl was trying to make fun of her or simply wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, Safia told her that it was green. The following day, that same girl came up to her, a bit daunted and insecure, and asked if her hair was really green.

As different as their migration stories may seem, their experiences are not. They all soon realized that there was no American Dream without something of an American Nightmare. Even though they were able to live in an environment which was safe from war or persecution, they still had and have to fight the daily rations of discrimination, exclusion and isolation. People try to put them in a box. They try to stereotype and categorize them.

“I’m a citizen of the world,” Diego states. “Our culture is what we get from various sources. It’s something personal, it’s you’re own world!”

Safia agrees. She can identify not only with Somalis, but with with immigrants, Muslims, Africans and Blacks in general. A person’s culture cannot be narrowed down to belonging to a certain ethnic group and by no means to a country or nationality. We are influenced by various personal experiences and by the people around us. Music, books, and movies can help to determine our cultural identity. So can parents, teachers, friends or even the president.

I think that Diego is right. Our cultural identity is something personal. Why do we tend to categorize people on the basis of their national origin, their skin color, or their religion? Why don’t we try to categorize them on the basis of their favorite ice cream flavor, their future goals or simply on the basis of their belonging to the species of men (and women)? By the way, some very successful and famous people were once refugees: Albert Einstein, Madeleine Albright, Wyclef Jean and M.I.A. escaped violence and persecution in their home countries. How have they inspired you?

Let’s be open and take advantage of all the diversity that we have on this campus. I know it is not always easy to let go of stereotypes and biases, but an event like this offers a great opportunity to learn from each other and to pave the way for a world with less violence, less conflicts and less causes for displacement. And eventually we can make this campus our own little kingdom.