On December 11, 2001, students at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, gathered for an assembly to commemorate the three-month anniversary of the terror attacks on New York and Washington.
Among the people slated to speak were two students in their senior year, Ashir and Abdul. They were going to recount to their teachers and fellow students their experiences with discrimination in the tense weeks following the attacks.
Ashir and Abdul are close companions. In October, the two of them were driving with some of their friends when an SUV began following close behind them. The SUV pulled in front of them and tried to cut them off.
When the boys stopped at a red light, the SUV stopped right beside them. A man inside rolled down his window and began yelling at the youngsters. Both Ashir and Abdul immigrated from Pakistan less than five years ago, and their English isn't perfect, but they understood what the man meant.
He yelled that they were terrorists. He said they should go back to the country they came from. He told them what would be in store for them if they stayed in America.
Ashir and Abdul sat tight. They rolled up their windows and locked the doors. They even had the presence of mind to note the license plate number of the man's vehicle. Then they picked up a cell phone and dialed the police. When the light turned green, they drove away safely.
A few days later, in a presumably safe classroom in their own high school, a fellow student exploded at them, apparently without provocation. The student, who was later expelled, yelled that Ashir and Abdul probably carried box cutters. She said that their sort of people do nothing but hurt others. She told them to go back where they came from.
As Ashir and Abdul walked up to the podium to tell their stories at the assembly, Asha Balakrishnan was nervous. She is an adult volunteer who works with the young men through SAMTA, a mentoring program for South Asian students.
She knew from talking to them beforehand that Ashir and Abdul were anxious about speaking in front of almost four hundred peers, in a language in which they were not perfectly fluent. The boys had also shared their anxiety with another person in the audience, Arnold Clayton.
Clayton is a teacher at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, and he is director of the school's International Students Center. Clayton knew that the boys were less than eager to talk that day.
"I had to encourage them to make the presentation," Clayton says. "In fact I did more than encourage them, I pressured them."
Balakrishnan and Clayton both knew that it is never easy to get students to talk about the thorny and upsetting issue of discrimination. For the past two years, SAMTA has been working with Clayton and others at Cambridge Rindge and Latin to help recently immigrated South Asian students to understand the academic and career choices facing them, to build bridges with the wider community, and to be able to understand and respond to discrimination.
The organization was founded in February 2000 by South Asian Americans living in the Boston area, including Balakrishnan and Ashok Parameswaran (this writer's brother). The letters in the organization's name stand for "South Asian Mentoring and Tutoring Association," but the name also has another meaning: In Hindi, the word "samta" means equality.
Conversations with Songs and Movies
According to Balakrishnan, students aren't always thrilled about getting into a serious discussion about multiculturalism and racial bias. "A lot of these kids are struggling to keep their heads above water," says Balakrishnan. "These are new immigrants. There's a language problem. They're just trying to understand what people are saying to them. They are not necessarily thinking about whether what they're hearing constitutes discrimination."
About 30 students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School participate in SAMTA, and most of them have lived in the United States for periods ranging from only a few months to five years.
About half of the students are still learning English as a second language. And like other high school students, the South Asian Rindge and Latin students are only just beginning to formulate ideas about the larger world and their place in it.
Although racial discrimination is a real prospect in these students' lives, their preoccupations are often elsewhere. "I remember when I was their age," says Balakrishnan. "Did I want to get into a serious discussion about race and those issues? I probably didn't."
So how do teachers and mentors broach important subjects and get students talking to each other? Well, if one were to follow SAMTA's example, the answer would be: creatively.
Recently, a SAMTA volunteer, Preeti Aghalayam, met with a group of South Asian students at Rindge and Latin for an afternoon of songs and laughter. They played a game called Anthakshari, in which each person in a circle sings part of a popular song of their choice. When one person stops singing, the next in the circle must start a song that begins with the last word or syllable of the previous song.
Anthakshari is a very popular game in India, but in Cambridge, the students played it with a twist. After every fifth song, a student had to draw a discussion question from a hat. They discussed questions like: Should sisters and brothers in the same family be treated equally? Why isn't there a girls' cricket team at the school?
It worked relatively well. The atmosphere was relaxed; no one was lecturing the students, and when the conversation lagged, they simply returned to the game.
Asha Balakrishnan has also used movies to spark discussions about cultural differences, race and poverty. At a recent SAMTA gathering, she showed part of the film Salaam Bombay!, by Indian director Mira Nair.
The film starkly portrays poverty and prostitution in India. After watching the clip, the students discussed what they had seen. They said the film seemed like an accurate portrayal of life for some people in India. One student said that in India she knew of girls who had become prostitutes.
Then, Balakrishnan asked if any of the students had witnessed poverty in the United States. All of them said they had. Did they find this surprising? Yes, it was surprising. They had envisioned America simply as a wealthy country.
Balakrishnan was pleased to have sparked this discussion, and to have gotten the students to think critically about the similarities and differences between their old country and their new one. But, she says, students don't always have to talk. Balakrishnan suggests that purely playful methods can sometimes be even more effective than serious discussion in promoting intercultural understanding.
She recalls that at a dance class organized by SAMTA in December, students from different regions and religions danced and mingled with each other to the beats of Indian bhangra songs. Some Gujurati Muslim students sat on the sidelines because, they explained, they were not supposed to dance during Ramadan, but they seemed nevertheless to enjoy watching the festivities.
"It's important to be sensitive to the social as well as the academic adjustment of new immigrants, and to make provisions for it," says Arnold Clayton, who teaches several South Asian students.
Informal social activities like SAMTA's dance class can help to provide for this adjustment. And according to Balakrishnan, these activities can be useful in combating stereotypes and discrimination because "they get people from different groups" — Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs — "to interact with each other and realize that the others are just people."
This is no small achievement. SAMTA mentors try to encourage the students not to shy away from interacting with non-South Asians, despite language problems and cultural differences. But sometimes it's a big step even to get the South Asian students talking with each other.
South Asia is a vast and incredibly diverse region. At Cambridge Rindge and Latin alone, there are students from Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. (The term "South Asia" often refers to these countries as well as Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Bhutan. Tibet, while officially part of China, shares many affinities with South Asian countries. South Asia differs from Southeast Asia, which refers to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, East Timor, Singapore, Brunei, Burma and Thailand.)
The South Asian students at Rindge and Latin are also religiously diverse. There are Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians, and their native languages include Urdu, Bengali, Hindi, Gujurati, Tibetan and Punjabi.
Some of these young people never interacted with South Asians from different regions, religions or language groups until they came to the United States. The newer immigrants, Balakrishnan says, tend to cling to other students from their particular religion or language group, and can be reluctant to associate with others.
To help break down these barriers, SAMTA is for example organizing a forum for Indian and Pakistani students to discuss their concerns about the recently heightened threat of war between those two nations.
But potential tensions among students have also been defused in a more sporting way. The rivalry between Indians and Pakistanis manifests itself with particular ferocity on the cricket fields.
Here in the United States, volunteer Preeti Aghalayam helped SAMTA to organize a Cambridge Rindge and Latin School cricket team to participate in a tournament at MIT. Where she grew up, it would be unimaginable for an Indian to root for a Pakistani cricketer, or vice versa.
The Indian and Pakistani students played together because, well, there wasn't any option. There was only one team on which to play. Aghalayam, who grew up watching crowds of Indian cricket fans jeering at Pakistani players, admits that she was amazed by the cooperation on the cricket field.
Reframing the Discussion
In addition to group activities and discussions, SAMTA offers one-on-one mentoring and tutoring with the goals of providing role models for the students, and of demystifying the difficult career and academic choices that new immigrants may find overwhelming.
Tarim Wasim tutored Sana, a Pakistani immigrant who was a senior at Rindge and Latin. Wasim, who himself came to the United States from Pakistan six years ago to attend college, says that there can be a gulf between an immigrant's perception of higher education, and the role that it plays in the United States.
Sana was unsure whether she would go to college, particularly because her parents were ambivalent about it. "In Pakistan," Wasim says, "it's often acceptable for girls not to go." And sometimes, immigrant families see college as purely utilitarian — a step towards joining a profession, not a time for intellectual exploration.
Wasim helped his tutee to explore reasons to go to college other than simply to get a job. "She was impressed that I was happy here," Wasim said. "She wasn't happy. She still missed Pakistan, and she wasn't convinced that this was a better place. I explained that I was happy and comfortable here partly because I went to college. It's a defining experience in this country. Also, having a lot of friends here, including non-Pakistani friends, is important. College helps you to have that."
Wasim spoke to Sana's parents and encouraged her to do the same, to help them to understand the importance of college in the United States.
Sana faced another hurdle, occasionally making grades that were not up to snuff. Wasim helped school officials to understand that these grades didn't necessarily reflect her full potential. "I had to explain that she was getting used to a new system, that she didn't know English that well when she first got here."
Sana also attended a career fair and college financial aid information session organized by SAMTA, where representatives from various institutions answered students' questions. And when it came time to prepare for the SAT's, Sana met with Wasim frequently to go over practice questions, or sometimes called him just to ask the meanings of words.
There were times when Sana thought there were just too many hurdles between her and college, but, she says, Wasim told her not to give up.
Today, Sana lives at home and goes to college on a scholarship. She enjoys it, even though she finds it very difficult. She juggles her coursework with the housework she does to help her family, and her parents occasionally see their daughter staying up till five in the morning studying, and still wonder whether college is worth the trouble.
She started out as a biology major but is now thinking of switching to English. She is using her time in college to explore the many options available to her, and "that," Wasim says, "is a good thing."
Finding Their Voices
On December 11, when Ashir and Abdul went to the podium at their school assembly, Asha Balakrishnan and Arnold Clayton stood in the auditorium watching with anticipation. The two boys speak with accents. Would they get nervous or embarrassed? Would their classmates listen respectfully?
As Balakrishnan and Clayton recalled it, one boy spoke first, then the other. They recounted their terrifying moments of harassment. They explained that they had nothing in common with the people who committed the terrorist atrocities. They said that they had no desire to cause trouble. They said that they were very grateful to be in the United States, and wanted very much to get along with their fellow Americans.
Their English wasn't perfect, and neither was their delivery, but they held the auditorium spellbound. You could have heard a pin drop. "It was very touching," says Balakrishnan.
Afterwards, after the applause and the congratulations, after news photographers took their pictures and people asked them questions, Ashir and Abdul, who had been anxious about speaking out in the first place, were thrilled.
It's not easy to get young new immigrants to talk, but when they find their voices, it can be very gratifying.