Similar to many incoming first-year students, Shamim Ibrahim excitedly researched Virginia, the state she would soon call home for four years while she attended the University of Richmond. Then, she made a startling discovery.
Ibrahim’s search results revealed reports of a young Muslim woman like herself who was senselessly murdered this summer on her way to a mosque in Northern Virginia.
“My family really wanted me to go to the U.K. for university," Ibrahim, who is originally from Kenya, said. “They’re like, ‘Are you sure you want to go to the U.S.? Trump is the president, it’s really not the best time to go.’”
Ibrahim is one of many of UR’s international students. According to the university's website, 12 percent of its undergraduate student body comes from outside the U.S. Together, these students possess a variety of perspectives, based on their own unique backgrounds, on the pressing racial issues present in the U.S.
Ibrahim’s notion of race changed when she began attending school in Canada, where she was suddenly the minority.
“When I went to Canada, it was I think the first time I realized I was black in a sense,” she said. “I was surrounded by people who weren’t black and I was like, ‘Oh, race is a thing now.’”
Although many students discussed how they had personally experienced discrimination at home and abroad, some expressed their hesitation to speak out on these issues in the American context.
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Charlotte Hawkins, a junior from the United Kingdom studying American History, explained an inability to fully understand what minorities in the U.S. have endured.
“We definitely don’t have the right to voice their grievances because we’ve not been through them,” Hawkins said. "But we can definitely support and learn as much as we can and not be so ignorant about the topic and not ignore it.”
Ibrahim also expressed her inability to speak on behalf of other black students on campus.
“Just being here for two months… I can’t imagine what black Americans feel like growing up in such an environment,” Ibrahim said.
Although these two students may feel as if they are unable to relate specifically to the experience of minorities in America, most of the international students the Collegian interviewed did not hesitate when asked to identify similarities between the United States and other nations.
All of them acknowledged the presence of minority groups in their home countries that face discrimination. From the Romani people in Bosnia to Filipinos in Hong Kong to Somalis in Kenya to middle-eastern refugees in the Netherlands or Venezuelans in Ecuador, racial discrimination and tensions are clearly not limited to the U.S.
Mustansir Husain, a junior from Pakistan, explained how the presence of extremist groups opposing minorities also existed in places other than the U.S.
“Extremist groups in the Muslim world are more about religious differences, but here they’re more racially charged,” he said. “It’s just because of what the major conflict is.”
Bilal Hindi, a sophomore from Lebanon, discussed how extremist groups lead to misconceptions and overgeneralizations on both sides, whether of Middle-Easterners as terrorists, or of white Americans as racists.
“The problem is that these small groups are always the reflection of the country to other places,” Hindi said. “When I told my friends I was going to come to the U.S. they were like, ‘Oh you’re going to get shot.’ That’s the first thing everyone told me. Everyone. I was like, ‘Why?’ They were like, ‘You have darker skin.'”
As a result, in 2016, Hindi experienced panic attacks before coming to UR for his first of four years.
Six of the nine students interviewed — Hindi and Ibrahim included — said that they or their families and friends had expressed fear over their choice to study in the U.S. in the wake of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 11 to 12, which resulted in the death of one woman and many injured.
Two students mentioned they had learned about the Ku Klux Klan during schooling in their home countries, but they had been unaware of the group’s continued existence until the events in Charlottesville, which led to heightened discussion of Virginia’s monuments as tributes to white supremacy.
Hindi recalled riding down Richmond’s Monument Avenue with his friends for the first time. In awe of the statues, he had asked his friends whether the men were American heroes.
“They were like, ‘Well yeah, maybe some of them are, some of them are not, but we still have statues for them,’” Hindi said. “I was very confused because usually, especially like back home when you have a statue of someone, that means he’s someone who’s done great things to the country and not to a certain group of the country, otherwise it wouldn’t be up there if it was controversial."
Julio Vilalta, a junior from Spain, discussed a similar controversy in Spanish society surrounding monuments to Francisco Franco, a brutal military dictator who ruled Spain for nearly 40 years.
“People are fighting between, ‘I want this as part of the history of my country’ and people that say, ‘I don’t want to remember this part of the history,’” he said. “Normally it starts because some people protest, then the government sees that it’s a serious thing and they go and take down the statues.”
Despite similarities found in cross-country comparison, there are also significant differences.
Ana Paula Alvarado, a first-year student from Central America, noted that U.S. Americans possess a unique spirit of independence.
“In Honduras and in Nicaragua, people are a lot more united together, more friendly. Here it’s more individualistic,” Alvarado said.
Vilalta said that he has noticed racial distinctions present in American society that are unlike anywhere else he has ever been.
“Here you differentiate a lot between races," Vilalta said. "It’s crazy. Like there’s black people, there’s white people, there’s brown people. Why do you have to differentiate between people?”
Some international students said they see these racial issues and divides as deeply embedded in and perpetuated by U.S. institutions.
“I feel like there’s a long way to go for the States because the racism here as I perceive it is very institutionalized, very much in the system, very much in the core of American politics and society,” said Marija Vidakovic, a junior from Bosnia.
Freija Vermeer, a junior from the Netherlands, echoed Vidakovic on the prevalence of institutional racism and cited the criminal justice and political systems as evidence. Vermeer also expressed fears that the systems would never truly change.
“The worrying thing to me is that back home we learn that institutions take a very long time to change,” Vermeer said. “It basically needs an uprising from the population as a whole to go against the establishment to really change... I don’t know how willing politicians are in your country to change your laws because they obviously get a certain amount of power from it.”
Husain said that many Americans are uninformed about what is happening throughout the rest of the world.
“I know a lot of U.S. citizens don’t follow international politics,” Husain said. "But a lot of international people follow U.S. politics... People see international news covering all of the racial tension in America, and they just assume that Americans are racist.”
An important insight to be gleaned from all of the international students interviewed is that the world is closely watching the U.S. as it navigates an era of racial reconciliation.
“I guess the world had thought that there was a lot of progress made in terms of race in the States, but this showed that nope, there’s a lot of work yet to be done,” Ibrahim said about the Charlottesville rallies. “I think it’s a huge wake-up call.”
Contact features editor Sara Minnich at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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