CWRU Muslim Students Association presents faces of immigrants

On Friday, April 21, Case Western Reserve University community members of diverse backgrounds came together to listen and share their immigration stories at Algebra Tea House. CWRU’s Muslim Students Association (MSA) invited professors, students and other members of CWRU to speak about their experiences as immigrants or with immigrants.

The first speaker was senior instructor Rekha Srinivasan. Better known among students as “Dr. Sri”, Srinivasan said sometimes she would rather be wearing her traditional sari instead of her t-shirt and jeans.

Srinivasan didn’t always want to wear her traditional clothes. She reflected on wanting to wear t-shirts and jeans while in India. After growing up in India and experiencing an arranged marriage, she found it difficult to adjust to a new country and culture when she moved to the United States.

“You miss the things about the country you grew up in,” she said.

Professor of Arabic and religious studies Ramez Islambouli wondered about Srinivasan’s obstacles in academia and asked, “did anyone look down on you?”

Srinivasan fought for recognition in her department. In 2005, there was only one other woman in the department. She recalled having to read course evaluations out loud and hearing feedback such as “we hired you, but face it, there are problems with you” and “the shawl she was wearing was distracting.” When circumstances were not going well, Srinivasan’s background and accent received extra attention. However, despite the negative feedback, she still strove to challenge her students to know what they were capable of and was adamant that “it would do [students] a disservice” otherwise.

Next, speaker Matthew Villaluz, staff at the Office of Multicultural Affairs and graduate student at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, recited two poems. “Peace and Rice” told the story of when he was eight years old and felt a loss of connection with Filipino culture and language. He recalled an instance when it was difficult to communicate with his grandma because they did not share the same language. Villaluz was born in Manila, Philippines, and immigrated to the United States at age eight. “The Tree” told his experience as a child in a struggling family during Christmas and recalled a memory of a tree in the Philippines he had to leave behind, along with many other things.

Lisa Nielson, the interim director of the Flora Stone Mather Center for Women, then spoke of a different story.

“I am not an immigrant, well, actually I am. We are all immigrants to this country,” she said at the beginning of her speech.

When Nielsen was age 13, her mother came out as lesbian. Living in Salt Lake City in 1980s, Nielson found it difficult to talk about her family, in fear of putting them in danger.

The floor was then opened to the audience to contribute to the discussion and share their stories. One student recollected a memory when he was in a grocery store and was approached by someone who asked with hate, “why do Chinese people always smile?” He was ashamed of his father for smiling. Another student spoke of the difficulty of being American Indian and urged the audience to love each other for who they are.

The event allowed members of the community a place to address their own unique experiences. After the talk, MSA president Amalia Gitosuputro, encouraged participants to reach out to one another and continue open communication.