Fatima Shama addresses crowd about issues surrounding immigration

By Jaclyn Bryson

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Cade Belisle/Collegian

All eyes were on Fatima Shama at the Student Union Ballroom last night.

The Commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs asked those  who were born outside of the United States to stand. She asked those who had parents, grandparents or great-grandparents who were born outside of the country to stand.

Soon, the whole room was on its feet.

“We are a nation of immigrants,” Shama said, gazing into the crowd before her.

Students, faculty and members from the surrounding community assembled in the ballroom yesterday to hear Shama speak at a talk called “Immigration Nation: Past and Future.”

Shama has been actively involved with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration since 2006, when she served as the city’s Health Literacy and Language Access coordinator.  She also held the position of senior education policy adviser before becoming the commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs in August 2009.

According to Shama, 60 percent of the 8.4 million people in New York City are immigrants or children of immigrants. It is her job, she said, to make sure these people are served.

She said she constantly hears stories of immigrants who feel they are perceived as terrorists, or the children of these immigrants, who are shunned by other families who do not want to associate with them in their school system.

“I get to do something about that,” she said.

Programs such as “One NYC, One Nation,” which encourages immigrants to get involved and become leaders, were born from her initiative.

According to Shama, other programs she is invested in that improve immigrant’s experiences include the TV show, “We are New York,” which informs immigrants of resources while allowing them to practice their English, and the Outcome Unity NYC Awards, which will be formally launched in December.

Shama was born in the “boogie down Bronx,” as she calls it, to a mother of Brazilian descent and a father of Palestinian. “We were really confused,” she joked, referring to her upbringing where both Catholicism and Islam were practiced.

But she said she has come to admire such diversity, taking particular pride in what she refers to as, “Immigrant Entrepreneurs,” or immigrants who, like her father, came to this nation with only a dream.

“In America, everything is great. In America, dollars grow on trees,” Shama said, referring to the misconceptions many immigrants may have.

Some of these misconceptions were also shared by students, faculty members and community members who told their stories last night.

Janam Anand, a UMass student, recalled of her father’s journey to make a better life for his family in America.

When Anand was 9 years old, her father left Kuwait and immigrated to the United States – only bringing $1,000 and a single suitcase with him. After earning enough money to buy an apartment from working jobs at a tollbooth and a gas station, the rest of his family joined him.

“We spent eight years of my life under constant fear of deportation,” Anand added, recalling fears she had until her family was eventually granted political asylum.

Sasha Kim, another UMass student, recalled a similar experience. Born and raised in Uzbekistan, she remembers the details of her family’s journey to America almost 10 years ago, when their plane landed at terminal six at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

“My family was arrested, my parents were handcuffed and we were sent to a family prison,” she said.

She spent seven months under surveillance until she and her family were allowed to stay in New York with friends until they were granted political asylum. She just past the citizenship test in August and said she is looking forward to voting.

Young people were not the only one who shared their stories last night.

Marise Lyra spoke of her immigration to America from Brazil 13 years ago. Once an elementary school teacher, she moved to Amherst and accepted a job cleaning the floors at the local Big Y supermarket.

But for her, that wasn’t enough.

She missed being in the classroom and made it her mission to learn English. She is now in her second semester at UMass, seeking a master’s degree.

Mzamo Mangaliso, an associate professor of management at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass, also faced immigration challenges.

He immigrated to America 30 years ago, with only his wife, young daughter and three suitcases. After a trip to Paris to recruit students, he faced difficulties returning to the states when his visa expired while he was abroad.

After days of trying to resolve the situation, he said he was allowed to return to America only when he was told: “I’m not going to give you this visa without the insurance that in one month, you will pack your bags and go back to South Africa.”

It is these attitudes that Shama said she wishes to change.

She called for students to take initiative at UMass, to produce a “Unity UMass.”

Even something as simple as incorporating diverse food into the menu at UMass can break down barriers, she said.

“Metaphorically speaking, the breaking of bread always brings people together.”

Shama asked students to do more by interacting with each other and getting involved on campus.

“You actually are the microcosm for what should be happening in the macro,” she said. “The solution has to come from all of you.”

Jaclyn Bryson can be reached at [email protected]