Saturday, February 23rd, 2019

Multicultural students discuss diversity and discrimination

Katelyn Wiggins

Posted on September 15, 2014 in Arts & Culture
By elledavis

U.S. Census figures show that Maine is one of the least diverse states in the country estimating that 95.3 percent of Maine’s population is white. According to Reza Jalali, coordinator at the office of multicultural student affairs, Portland is slowly becoming more diverse, but that there’s still a lot of room for improvement in the city and at USM.

“Maine has a very small population as it is, so we need immigrants. It’s not about whether we like it or not, it’s really an issue of survival for a state with a rapidly graying population,” said Jalali. “We need young people to come here; young professionals to start businesses, people who want to raise families.”

According to Jalali, immigration is good for the community because it brings youth and economic prosperity. He says that issues with immigration have been present in America for decades upon decades, and many Americans are taught that influxes of immigrants are bad for the economy and that it will cause racial and cultural barriers, even though it’s untrue.

“We do need to address the barrier that immigrants face when coming here, even on a smaller scale in Maine and at USM,” said Jalili. “People will tell you that language is an issue, that finances are an issue for these people and that they will live off of welfare and won’t have to pay taxes like everyone else. Sure, some are on welfare but they most certainly have to pay taxes.”

As for financial issues, Jalali said that immigrants often take the jobs that Americans ‘wouldn’t touch,’ and they are often paying for their own education and living expenses just like native Mainers.

Jalali said that there is a lack of understanding about immigrants, where they come from, and the cultural and economic vibrancy that they can bring to a community.

According to Jalili, “Portland and USM need to be a part of supporting the contributions that they are bringing to the area. People, even professors here at USM, need to be educated on who these immigrants are.”

Jalili believes that Portland is mostly tolerant of immigrants, but that tolerance isn’t necessarily good. “People tolerate mosquitos and people tolerate their drunk uncles at Thanksgiving dinner,” said Jalali. “Tolerance just isn’t enough. There needs to be acceptance and engagement with foreigners to promote working and educational relationships.”

Hani Ali, a senior psychology major, said that she came to the United States with her family when she was only a couple months old. She first and foremost believes that it is important for immigrants to maintain their native culture.

“It’s difficult when you have parents who are having trouble understanding assimilation, but you yourself understand the culture you’re in and feel obligated to be a part of your native culture and American culture,” said Ali. “There’s a lot of conflict between the two.”

Her friend, Salma Hassan, a junior health science major, moved to the Portland area when she was a couple years old. She explained her perspective on diversity in Portland and at USM a little further. She said, “Naturally I am Somali, ethnically I am Somali, but then I’m also American because I was raised here. I have these two cultures that I have to own because they are both physically and environmentally a part of who I am.”

Both women don’t have any issues with maintaining their own culture and also assimilating to American culture, although their struggles come from balancing the two. They both said that they can only speak from their own experience, and can’t generalize with other ethnicities’ experiences with immigration here in the United States. They said that their culture differs in ways in Portland that accrue discrimination and make it clear that there needs to be a better understanding of diversity.

“When you get discriminated against, you have to wonder why,” said Ali.

Hassan and Ali reiterate that these things can create public assumptions that Muslims have a hard time speaking English, or even that certain topics of discussion, such as immigration or sex, will make them uncomfortable because they are Muslim. They even notice this within certain classrooms.

“If I were part of any other religion, professors and other people wouldn’t be able to tell, but being Muslim is obvious because I wear a hijab,” said Hssan, who goes on to explain that a hijab is the veil in that covers her head and chest

According to Hassan, discrimination is systematic and experienced through larger institutions such as the government. Jalili continues to explain that discrimination is passed down from these institutions and eventually trickles down to the individual.

“Knowledge of these individuals and their issues is the key. You have to learn how to handle the situation better, whether you’re a professor, a student or an average person,” says Jalili.

A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed Hassan and Ali’s quotes to one another. The quotes were in reverse.

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