Upon arriving at the La Pietra Dialogue Xenophobia: Creative Urban Responses, I was struck by the diversity of the speakers sitting before me. While I immediately noticed their racial differences, the wide variety of occupations represented was the most interesting to me. I learned from the event’s program that, in addition to the university professors and government officials that one expects to find at such a conference, NYU had invited Izzedin Elzir, the Imam of Florence, and Badera Seck, a Senegalese singer.
Badera Seck provided the most interesting perspective, one I had never previously heard. He stated that in his impoverished African village, there has not been a single divorce or suicide in generations because people are more connected to one another, and, most importantly, listen to each other. In Africa, he said, people are often an hour late to an event because they have to say their goodbyes to the entire village before going somewhere. This floored me, since my family usually yells goodbyes to each other as we scramble out the door, frantic if we are more than 5 minutes late. However, I wonder if the lack of divorce is due to happiness and satisfaction among married Senegalese or other factors, such as strict divorce laws, cultural stigma, or economics. Though I essentially know nothing about Senegalese culture, I have a hard time believing that every single person is happily married. Seck did mention that his father had multiple wives and I can’t imagine how such an arrangement can lead to happiness for all parties involved. Regardless, I found the cultural differences fascinating.
Additionally, the professors and policy makers also provided differing perspectives. Muzaffar Chishti, Director of the Migration Policy Institute at NYU Law School, highlighted the differences between Europe and America’s immigration histories. For example, American society is more accustomed to receiving immigrants than many European societies. However, he surprisingly said that American society is better at getting immigrants jobs while European governments are good at directing them to the state welfare office. This comment wasn’t fully explained, but it seems like a slap at the European nations’ immigration systems.
While no nation is perfect, the European systems seem wildly more helpful to immigrants to me than the American one. America lags behind Europe in providing social services even to its own citizens. In Europe, however, immigrants can expect the government to provide healthcare and a college education because everybody in the country is afforded those rights. I wonder if America seems to have more employed immigrants because those who can’t find work return home due to the lack of social services and unemployment benefits.
However, according to Fatima Shama, the Immigration Commissioner for Mayor Bloomberg’s office in New York City, America does provide immigrants with extensive resources, though she admits we could do better. She spoke about the diversity of New York, something that continues to amaze me and the city’s extensive efforts to reach out to immigrant communities by meeting immigrants where they live and informing them of city services available in their native language. Unfortunately, through no fault of her own, I couldn’t help but think about how the Associated Press recently revealed that the New York Police Department has been spying on Muslim communities and citizens in New York City for the past decade.
Overall, I was surprised that Europe and America are both dealing with eerily similar issues. I often think of the two as entirely different worlds, yet both Florence and my hometown in Southern California are trying to reconcile the local Muslim community’s desire for a more prominent mosque with uneasiness among other residents. Dialogues, such as this, that promote understanding of cultural differences might serve as a valuable tool to alleviate the tension and mistrust that exist among different groups in our societies.