American Immigrants Consider The Country's Role In The World

Sep 3, 2016
Originally published on September 4, 2016 5:42 am
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, a conversation about America's role in the world. All week, NPR reporters have been looking at pressing problems around the world that the next president will have to face - the Islamic State, the global migration crisis, intense relations with Russia - to name just a few. It's part of our network-wide reporting project called A Nation Engaged, that all of these issues are percolating at a time when many Americans say they want the next president to move away from global engagement to focus on matters here at home.

So to cap off the week, we thought we'd ask what America's role in the world should be to one particular group, American immigrants. Of course, it's unscientific. We didn't take a poll, but rather we gathered a group of thoughtful people with ties to other countries. We called Milton Allimadi, publisher and editor of Blackstar News in New York. He's originally from Uganda.

MILTON ALLIMADI: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me on your show.

MARTIN: Also with us Valeria Luiselli. She's an author of several books who teaches at Hofstra University on Long Island in New York, but she's currently traveling in Mexico where she's from. We reached her in Carretero. Thank you so much for joining us.

VALERIA LUISELLI: It's a pleasure to be speaking with you guys.

MARTIN: Asmaa Albukaie was the first Syrian refugee in Idaho when she left Syria about two years ago with her two teenage sons. We reached her there. Asmaa Albukaie, thank you so much for joining us as well.

ASMAA ALBUKAIE: Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: And Chih Wu Chang is a Chinese-American living in San Diego. He's volunteered for a group that encourages people to go to the polls, and he was nice enough to take a break from taking care of his grandson to talk with us today. Chih Wu Chang, thank you so much for speaking with us as well.

CHIH WU CHANG: Thank you for inviting me. It is a great pleasure.

MARTIN: So let's go right to the question, and, Milton, we will start with you. What do you think America's role should be in the world at this point in our history?

ALLIMADI: I think the United States should continue doing what it does best which is to keep transforming itself. I think it should also allow countries that want to emulate the United States and, perhaps, even help them whenever they can. One of the things that I find a bit disappointing is when the United States sometimes works with dictatorial regimes in African countries because people in African countries are really inspired by the U.S. ability to transform itself.

So if we look at the U.S. in the '60s and then we look at in the 21st century, we are able to see an African-American elected as president of the United States. I think when people celebrated the election of Barack Obama in 2008, they were not only celebrating his achievement or for the United States, but they were also celebrating the possibilities of that kind of transformation occurring in their own countries and elsewhere around the world.

MARTIN: So you think that the U.S. should uphold democracy?

ALLIMADI: Absolutely. I think you should preach it and help uphold it elsewhere around the world.

MARTIN: Valeria, what about you? What do you think America's role in the world should be right now?

LUISELLI: Part of the reason why I decided to stay in the U.S. was because I found it was an environment that allowed me to feel both at home and be foreign, an environment that was diverse and tolerant to that. That's the role that I think the U.S. should also play outside.

I don't believe that the U.S. should play a role of international police or watchdog. I think that the myth of exceptionality should be set aside in order to have more equal bilateral relations with other countries. And, as a Mexican, I think that that's what Mexico expects more than anything.

MARTIN: Chih Wu Chang, what do you think America's role in the world should be right now?

CHANG: Well, I believe the United States should be - continue to be a leader in many areas. For example, in climate change, in human right, women's right, so everyone in the world will be treated equally - doesn't matter their religion, background. That's very important to me, in my view. In terms in dealing with China, I think United States need to take more soft approach. Instead, it go to China and trying to preach them how to do their business.

MARTIN: So some people might consider the two things you just said contradictory because you're saying on the one hand, you want to see...

CHANG: Yes.

MARTIN: ...The U.S. continue to be a leader...

CHANG: Yes.

MARTIN: ...In areas like human rights and...

CHANG: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Women's rights, but you think they should take a softer approach with China. That's a contradiction.

CHANG: Not really because in Chinese culture, the safe place is very important. You don't go to someone's house to tell them what to do - say, OK, I went to my neighbors, say, OK, your house looks beautiful, but you need to save more energy because you waste too much. In China, it's a no-no.

MARTIN: Asmaa, what about you?

ALBUKAIE: I think that United State be leader of peace, justice, freedom and be able to stop the war in the Middle East, but not involved with the war. I mean, to be able to stop killing innocent in Middle East. I think in our situation in Syria, the war is so complicated and too many countries involved now. So I really would like - only hope that United States can be able one day to stop the war in the Middle East.

MARTIN: We've been talking about how you would like to see America walk in the world going forward. I just wanted to ask - kind of turn it around and ask how has America changed you?

ALBUKAIE: Well, before I got resettled to United State, I used to watch a lot of American movie in my country. And I love the country because what's present in the movie like freedom country, people work together, people really strong and everybody get an opportunity no matter if he is a white American or a black American or from different country. So when I arrive, I felt welcome. But since the elections start and talking about we are stranger, we are ISIS, we are not welcome anymore, I had some trouble with people. But they don't give me any chance to explain that I'm not from ISIS. I'm Muslim and woman, and I'm here for safety.

MARTIN: Asmaa, you're saying that you have had some difficulties recently with people...

ALBUKAIE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Being unwelcoming to you and to your family. Do you mind telling me a bit more about that?

ALBUKAIE: Yes. My son - he is 16 years old. He was one day last January with his friend to see downtown, and a - one of American guy - he asked him are you a Muslim? And my son was, you know, say, yes, I am Muslim. And he hit him in his face, and it is really shameful. Someone just hit a minor, and he is a big guy. The guy apologized.

MARTIN: Did he say why he did it?

ALBUKAIE: He said he was drunk, and he didn't know what he was saying. But the judge said it does not excuse. You are a big guy, and it is so shameful to hit a child. No matter for me if he's a drunk or not. The idea of hating Muslim - it's really bother me. I don't like to present I'm Muslim, but I am a Muslim, a woman who wears a scarf so - and everybody know that I'm Muslim, if they saw me.

MARTIN: No, I understand what you're saying. Sure, of course. You don't want to draw attention, but the fact is you have no choice. I mean, you have a right to wear your scarf.

ALBUKAIE: Exactly.

MARTIN: Well, just to tie a bow on this - and I'm sorry this happened. I mean, you're right. It is shameful. Looking at this whole episode in totality, do you feel that this experience has changed you? Do you feel you're now more afraid than you were before?

ALBUKAIE: Well, my children are really afraid. They are minors, so they don't really understand. If something happened like that, they said, mom, you told us we will be safe in United State. For me, I'm not scared because I have a huge love to this country since I was 14 years old. I still believe in United State, a safe place, safe home to my family.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for telling me that. Milton, what about you?

ALLIMADI: I was really, by the way, touched by Asmaa. And I hope the best for her family and for her country as well, Syria. Personally, I think the United States has offered me the best of both worlds. Here in the U.S., I'm engaged very actively. I write about domestic political issues and about police brutality, for example, lack of equal opportunity for African-Americans. At the same time, I'm able to write about African politics. And I find that I've been inspiring a lot of emerging writers from African countries as well, from Kenya, South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania. They write to me. They send me articles that they want to get published. I could not see myself being involved in this kind of activity anywhere else in the world except in the United States.

MARTIN: Chih Wu Chang, what about you?

CHANG: I want to say something about Asmaa's experience, too. It's very upsetting. Every time I heard that kind of story upset me and my family member, too. Before I came this country and my experience about United State is very limited. What I learned about this country is basically from watching movie from Hollywood. So my impression may be shocking to a lot of people. It's white people are good people. Black people are bad people. Native Indian are bad people.

And now it is totally different. I mean, I'm not saying white people are bad people now because, I mean, a lot of people are good and bad because - doesn't matter what kind of race they are. But I appreciate this country giving me and my family a great opportunity, intense career. My children have an excellent education. Like I say, I still think this is the best country in the world. I love this country. I'd like to continue to get people to participate and get out to vote and to participate in this type of discussion and to support this country and continue to become the leader of the world.

MARTIN: And, Valeria, I'll give you the last word. Is there any way in which you think being in America has changed you?

LUISELLI: Well, yes, it has, of course. I mean, I found here a very open, generous and exhilarating literary community and that community has really modified the way I think about the world, the way I write. But I also found a very strong sense of community and commitment to community. So as much as there is that darker side of the U.S. where people shout Mexico after Trump asks who's going to pay for the wall, there's this other very luminous and very committed side of the United States which is what keeps me here, frankly.

MARTIN: All right. Well, thank you for that. We heard from Valeria Luiselli. She's an author in New York. She's originally from Mexico where we reached her while she's traveling. Milton Allimadi edits and publishes Black Star News. He's also in New York. We spoke with Asmaa Albukaie. She is a refugee from Syria. She's now working to help integrate other refugees in Boise, Idaho. And Chih Wu Chang is an activist in San Diego. I thank you all so much for speaking with us. I really enjoyed our conversation.

ALLIMADI: Thank you.

LUISELLI: Thank you.

ALLIMADI: I've learned from all the participants as well.

CHANG: Yeah. This is wonderful experience.

ALBUKAIE: Yeah. It was great to hear everybody. Thank you so much.

LUISELLI: Yeah.

CHANG: Thank you.

LUISELLI: Thank you so much, everybody. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.