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Youth in the Maelstrom: A Discussion of Immigration and Identity at Askwith Forum

Today many countries around the world are faced with a balancing act of incorporating new citizens into their society while maintaining national identities.

"There is a huge amount of migration worldwide, not just in the U.S., and in juggling that there are challenges to vulnerable newcomers and the host community alike," said Visiting Professor Helen Haste, who moderated last week's Askwith Forum, "Youth in the Maelstrom: Newcomers, Identity and Education."

The forum, cosponsored by the Civic and Moral Education Initiative and Facing History and Ourselves (FHO), explored issues of immigration and identity and featured a dynamic panel including Liav Orgad of the Radzyner School of Law, Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, and member of the Israeli Commission on Immigration Law and Policy; Jocelyn Stanton, senior program associate for Facing History and Ourselves; and Brandeis student Geraldine Mande, who immigrated to the U.S. from the Congo.

"It has often been said that immigration proposes a threat to national identity," Ograd said, noting that for a long time countries have struggled to determine how to educate immigrants and also negotiate their citizenship.

From country to country, the process of becoming a citizen varies immensely. For example, Britain's exam includes seemingly innocuous questions like, What would you do upon spilling a stranger's pint of beer? However, at the root of many countries requirements, said Ograd, is for immigrants to demonstrate neutrality and cultural coercion, in essence prove that they've become "British," "American," "Japanese," etc.

Ograd cautioned, "Immigrants are not coming alone. They travel with their cultures and identities, their dress codes, values, and etiquettes. The great challenge here is how can a nation state preserve the national culture and at the same time refrain from violating the same values they seek to protect."

Beyond the challenges facing nations regarding immigration, identity, and citizenship, newcomers struggle with identity issues of their own.

Mande came to America from the Congo at age 16, a time in which her native country was plagued by civil war and invasions. "The U.S. represented everything to me.... I was dying to go to the U.S.," she said. Coming to the United States was a chance at a better life, but once here, Mande admitted that it wasn't easy negotiating between her old and new cultures.

In school, Mande was overwhelmed because some people immediately wanted to be her friend, while others ignorantly dismissed Africa as a place where people run wild and "naked like animals." Though she was placed in an English as a Second Language course, Mande noted that all her other classes were regular which sometimes caused difficulties. In one instance, a student refused to work with her due to her "poor" English skills.

In 2006, when Mande was one of 50 students who won an essay contest held by Oprah Winfrey on the book Night by Elie Wiesel, her best friend declared she had won only because of her life in the Congo and her U.S. immigrant status. "Some people assume because of your background alone you get anything you want, if they only knew the struggle my people make to find a life here in the U.S.," she said.

Mande has also found it difficult at times to fit in her home country since moving to the U.S. During a recent visit to the Congo, her old friends commented on her [American] accent and she left confused.

"I walk a fine line between being a Congolese woman from Africa and immigrant to America," she said, "and every day I live with this dualism and it is not easy, but it is worth it."

This struggle with a dualist identity is something Stanton often witnesses in her immigrant students. The FHO curriculum allows students to find a voice, which is key for understanding themselves. However, she admitted that teachers, who don't have similar experiences as immigrants, are challenged with understanding their students.

Mande commented that teachers can make a difference by helping these students and educating other students about what it means to be a newcomer.

The panelists see education as playing a powerful role in educating "newcomers" but also the native population. As Stanton pointed out, America, in particular, has always struggled with issues between immigration and national identity.

Haste inquired as to whether the approach of "preaching tolerance" with a goal of multiculturalism could ever truly work in society.

Though the panelists agreed that everyone's notion of multiculturalism working may be different, Orgad pointed out that in society we have been forced to define and identify what it means to be American as well as what it means to be un-American, which inevitably leads to exclusion. "I support more room for multiculturalism and diversity and not to have one group, one culture, and one dress code because people are not the same," he said.