Issue 17: What can I say that hasn't been said?
Passing the mic to Black immigrants, finding humility in anti-racist work and learning to be a healthy, effective ally
“I’m not welcoming these calls,” Neal Lester, a Black professor at Arizona State University known for his extensive knowledge on race and society, told his third caller that morning, a white columnist at The Arizona Republic searching for some insight on how to best address racism within her community.
“I have no wisdom. I have pain, hurt and anger,” Lester told her. Karina Bland could tell he was tired, “tired of talking about race, of saying the same thing every time this happens. He’s tired of answering the questions.”
No one should have to ask him or other Black people how to act or respond, he added. If someone was drowning, would she wait for someone else to tell her what to do?
We all know what to do and how to get those answers. Donate, vote, petition, protest, challenge each other and speak up. And yet, I somehow find myself wondering what it really means to be an ally—and whether I should even subscribe to the word at all. What does it mean to do the kind of good that results in concrete change in both thought and action?
And what exactly is my role as a privileged non-Black immigrant with a mini platform such as this? What can I say or do that hasn’t already been said and done?
For weeks, I’ve been going back and forth on how to present this 17th issue of Foreign Bodies, compiling resources and doing hours of research and then berating myself for positioning myself as some sort of expert on anti-racism. I am not.
A fairly new acquaintance of mine, Meera Mohan-Graham, recently shared a gentle but firm reminder for “newly-awakening non-Black peers” who might be feeling frenetic, helpless and guilty about their inaction and silence.
In addition to donating and amplifying Black voices, “you may find yourself tempted to do something new, on your own, with limited guidance,” she writes, referring to the many like myself who feel an urgency to compile a list of recommendations, reading lists, study groups, even solidarity art. She asks us to hold, pause, breathe and then pause again. Consider what’s already out there. Think about the experts behind every resource you’ve read or heard or seen and consider the years of research, advocacy and action that led to that work.
“Anti-racism is about humility,” she writes. “You begin where you are.”
In my messy quest to bring you this issue, I’ve questioned my every move.
When I first decided to reschedule our June issue on LGBTQ+ immigrant experiences and acceptance and instead address anti-Black racism, a topic I had planned for later in the year, I knew that from the outside looking in, the decision itself could undoubtedly be viewed as performative allyship—that is, when someone from a currently non-marginalized group “professes support and solidarity with a marginalized group in a way that either isn’t helpful or that actively harms that group.” This kind of pseudo-activism “usually involves the ‘ally’ receiving some kind of reward,” sociologist Holiday Phillips wrote for Forge last month. “On social media, it’s that virtual pat on the back for being a ‘good person’ or ‘on the right side.’”
Am I comfortable defending myself against such criticism? Absolutely not. I’m not supposed to be comfortable with any of this.
As someone with a unique platform like Foreign Bodies, with an audience of primarily people of color, an audience of immigrants, of Black immigrants, indigenous peoples, advocates, activists and mental health professionals, I felt it would do more harm to do nothing at all. I know in my gut that dedicating this moment to the social issue we all have on our minds is the right thing to do. After all, racism is absolutely intertwined with mental health and well-being. And anti-Black racism is especially rampant within immigrant communities, both Black and non-Black.
But as a non-Black person of color, how could I proceed with caution and, again, with humility?
I immediately felt I needed to find a Black voice who could speak on mental health, on racism and on the immigrant experience, someone who might be itching to tell their own story. If you’ve read the previous issues of Foreign Bodies, you already know that each begins with a personal essay from a marginalized voice with a story to share. The questions I send my storytellers are always intimate. They often require sitting in one’s pain, addressing personal traumas and working to find lightness in vulnerability. How could I ask a Black individual to muster up the energy to do that kind of emotional work right now?
Yet I did. I reached out to a kind, stellar Black first-generation immigrant working in global health, someone I’ve been following closely for months now, and we were both eager to begin the collaboration process. A few days later, as he was answering the questions I sent, he realized he just wasn’t ready. He didn’t expect this process to be so hard for him, he wrote me via text. I deeply appreciated our brief discussion and I hate that he felt the need to apologize. That’s on me, 100%.
Covering any kind of tragedy—from police brutality to neighborhood fires to domestic terrorism—is part of the job and often, journalists instinctually feel called to report as soon as such tragedy strikes. When reporting on tragedy, we’re also taught to look for the victims, the relatives of the victims, the most vulnerable in the moment, the people who can best relay or expose the truth for our readers or viewers.
In traditional journalism, half the reporting work involves finding that “right” source. I’ve had editors tell me that writing a story is a lot like directing a movie. You have to find the right cast, the right leading man to tell the story that needs to be told.
And so, in traditional journalism, losing my lead source would be considered a major setback. It would put some added pressure on my shoulders to immediately find another before deadline.
But I’m free of those reins right now. I didn’t rush to find that second leading man or tell my first (whose name will undoubtedly pop up here in the future, because he rocks) that his reluctance is normal, that his story could ultimately help others—as is the standard and ethical one-final-push procedure in journalism when a source backs out.
Instead, I decided to hold, pause, breathe and then pause again.
I’m taking this moment to re-examine the role of personal storytelling in the midst of pain. How can I, as editor of a small digital publication that encourages vulnerable storytelling, better center the appropriate storytellers without potentially traumatizing them? Without doing so just to do so? And most importantly, have I sincerely asked myself whether centering a Black voice is really the right thing to do in this moment, when they’re the ones drowning, exhausted and just waiting for the rest of us to step up?
If I take your race away, and there you are, all strung out. And all you got is your little self, and what is that? What are you without racism? Are you any good? Are you still strong? Are you still smart? Do you still like yourself? I mean, these are the questions. Part of it is, "yes, the victim. How terrible it's been for black people." I'm not a victim. I refuse to be one... if you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is that white people have a very, very serious problem and they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.
— Toni Morrison, 1993 interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose
So, dear Foreign Bodies reader, this issue will read a bit differently (and perhaps a bit messier) than the others.
Nothing feels quite ready to tie with a silk ribbon. Every time my fingertips hit the keys, the latest headline zaps me back into my seat, and once again, I question the validity and effectiveness of my role here. I’m starting off with complete transparency and letting you take a good look at how I’ve messed up and how I need to do and be better.
For this issue, I’ve tried to put together whatever I noticed might be lacking or in short supply—and whatever I felt I could adequately do with my specific expertise and experience as a storyteller, a journalist, an immigrant and an advocate for better mental health among marginalized communities.
In the following sections, you’ll hear from Black voices, yes, and each Black individual included in this issue is an expert on either immigration or mental health work. I ask that you not look to them solely for anti-racism guidance, but instead consider amplifying the great work they do.
To accompany their profiles, I’ll start with a brief overview of the complex experiences facing Black immigrants in the United States, including how Black immigrants perceive mental illness and treatment.
You’ll also find some tips on how to be an effective advocate or ally while battling mental illness and experiencing heightened burnout.
Next, you’ll hear from an old friend of mine—a South Asian woman in an interracial relationship—and the complexities of being so close to someone whose experiences she’ll never truly understand.
And lastly, alllll the way at the end, you’ll find a downloadable compilation of responses to the common pushback non-Black immigrants often hear about racism and police brutality in the U.S., including what’s worked and what hasn’t for many in generating thoughtful discourse. Data for the resource was compiled through a form I sent out a few weeks ago, which led to more than a hundred entries, the bulk of which came from Asian American and Latinx individuals. A good friend of mine, Nabila Jamal, was invaluable in her research.
I’m happy to share a few of my go-to anti-racist resources at the bottom of this letter, but just to reiterate: this should not be anyone’s one-stop-shop.
I wholeheartedly welcome your criticism and feedback. And now, before I pass the mic…
Depending on who you ask or which academic journal you flip open, the exact definition of a Black immigrant may vary. In this particular Issue, we are defining a Black immigrant as any person who was born outside the U.S. to non-U.S. citizen parents and who identifies as Black or African American.
According to the latest Census data, there were at least 4.2 million Black immigrants living in the U.S. in 2016—a fivefold increase in the Black immigrant population in recent decades. Roughly one-in-ten Black individuals in the country are foreign-born. The largest individual home countries of Black immigrants in the U.S. include the Caribbean, Jamaica and Haiti.
Compared with other immigrant groups (and with the overall U.S. population), Black immigrants are generally more likely to be proficient English speakers, though educational attainment varies greatly by country of origin.
Foreign-born Black people are also “often perceived by whites and even black Americans as different and 'special' — as harder-working and more productive citizens than their black American counterparts,” Fordham University professor Christina M. Greer wrote in her book, Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream.
“It's a phenomenon that academics started noticing decades ago — that immigrants generally are ‘strivers’ who work hard to better their lives,” Valerie Russ reported for The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2018.
It’s important to keep in mind, says Catherine Labiran of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, that the process of colonialism on the African content historically pressured Africans into believing that European practices, policies and beliefs were superior.
“People who had a closer proximity to whiteness, through gaining Western education, converting to Christianity, and adopting a European language, were afforded privileges that others were not,” she says. “Not only were they made to look down on people who resisted this forceful transition within their countries, they were also made to look down upon Black people who were descendants of enslaved Africans.”
Oftentimes, Labiran says, Africans on the continent are fed “harmful stereotypes” depicting Black Americans as “lazy and criminal.” In the U.S., on the other hand, both Black and non-Black people have long been fed stereotypes of Africans as “primitive and uncivilized.”
So when Black immigrants—the vast majority of whom have not experienced the magnitude of racial trauma Black children in the U.S. grapple with every day—end up overpowering native Black Americans in education and socioeconomic status, it might feel natural to build some resentment.
“For many Africans, it takes migrating to the U.S. and experiencing racism for them to begin to identify with Blackness and the plight of Black people in America,” says Labiran, whose family hails from Nigeria. “But I do not think it has to be this way. We have to be committed to doing the work of unlearning the stereotypes that we have been taught about one another, which oftentimes means unlearning what we have been taught to think about ourselves.”
Similar to the model minority myth that’s historically pinned Asian Americans against Black Americans, this rift between native and foreign-born Black communities only serves the interests of white supremacy, echoes Dr. Barbara Thelamour, a professor of psychology specializing in Black immigrant identity at Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College.
Thelamour’s recent research suggests, however, that Black Africans are actually rapidly growing more aware of the hardships still plaguing Black Americans today. And they want to see more of an alliance, especially as police brutality continues to dominate the national conversation.
“We must remember that when it comes to police brutality, Black immigrants are not immune,” she says.
Think of Botham Jean, a Black immigrant from the Bahamas, who was shot and killed by an off-duty officer in Dallas, Texas, in 2018. Jean was inside his own apartment when the officer fired. The officer said she mistook his residence for her own, and believed his “large silhouette” belonged to an intruder. Years before, 23-year-old Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by four plain-clothed NYPD officers, one of whom previously claimed to have mistaken Diallo, who was unarmed, for a rape suspect. The officers fired a total of 41 times outside his apartment in the Bronx. Around the same time and in the same region, a Haitian man named Abner Louima was sexually abused and assaulted by NYPD after being arrested outside a Brooklyn nightclub. The injuries required multiple surgeries.
“It doesn't often get discussed within the mainstream media, but Black immigrants also make up a pretty significant percentage of undocumented immigrants in the country,” Thelamour says. “And the likelihood of Black immigrants being targeted by law enforcement on account of being Black is pretty high. Once it's discovered that perhaps they don't have papers, the likelihood of being deported is fairly high, too.”
It’s true. Black immigrants may be more likely to be U.S. citizens compared to other immigrant groups, but as The Atlantic’s Jeremy Raff previously pointed out, although only 7% of non-citizens in the U.S. are Black, they make up 20% of those facing deportation on criminal grounds.
“There are so many entry points” to deportation, New York University law professor Alina Das told Raff. And “when you are a person of color who is also an immigrant, you face a double punishment.”
You may have heard of 25-year-old Ousman Darboe, an undocumented Gambian man who grew up in a heavily policed Bronx neighborhood known for its prison-to-deportation pipeline. Since he was a teenager, Darboe faced a series of police stops, misidentifications and arrests that resulted in incarceration—and ultimately, in ICE detention. As of June 2020, he remains in ICE custody.
While Black immigrants in the U.S. initially have health outcomes similar to white Americans, research suggests the advantage decreases with more time in the country and over generations.
A recent study out of Princeton University on birthweight rates among the nation’s foreign-born Black population found that any Black immigrant “birthweight advantage” seems to disappear within a single generation. In contrast, researchers wrote, a modest advantage tends to persist across generations of foreign-born Hispanics.
These findings led the authors to suspect that anti-Black discrimination and inequality in the U.S. could be a contributing factor to deteriorating health outcomes over time. After all, “interpersonal discrimination, both before and during pregnancy, are likely to trigger physiological stress responses that negatively affect birth outcomes.”
“One of the major barriers to health care access is lack of health insurance,” says Labiran, who specializes in Black immigrant mental health through her work with BAJI. “Without quality, holistic, and affordable health insurance, many Black immigrants are forced into debt trying to pay medical bills.” Not only is cost a barrier, but Black women, both immigrant and native, “have grown accustomed to being ignored, silenced and abused in medical settings.”
Another barrier is the relationship that sometimes exists between healthcare practitioners and law enforcement, she says. Immigrants are often afraid to disclose particular details to their doctors or therapists because they are justifiably worried about being criminalized, incarcerated, or even deported.
And when it comes to mental health care in particular, Black immigrants are generally slow to embrace the more clinical approach to psychology that’s popular in the West.
“In my experience speaking with children of immigrants about their parents’ perception of mental health, they often report that their parents do not know what mental health is,” says Labiran. “In many cases, however, it’s not that their parents are completely unaware of what mental health is, it is just that they have a different phrase or way to describe it.”
In one example, an interviewee shared that her mother would say she’s “bored” when she was actually struggling with depression.
“Given the stigma attached to words like depression and the pressure that is placed on Black immigrants to overperform, it is understandable why she would refrain from using the clinical term. Her choice of language by no means undermines her experience and I think that those of us who have received training in mental health need to do a better job of meeting people where they are,” says Labiran.
Many Black immigrants also believe in an indivisibility between mental health, spirituality and culture, she adds. “We are aware that what affects our minds also affects our spirits and bodies, so we are more likely to seek holistic solutions. Some people, for example, find that they benefit from a combination of reiki, spiritual baths and therapy rather than just cognitive behavioral therapy on its own.”
Hi! I’m Kari. I’m a writer, journalist, mom of two brilliant, young humans, and a mental health and diversity advocate. I’m based in Atlanta, but Trinidad & Tobago—and my kitchen!—will always be home. I’m Black and Indo-Trinidadian (a mix called “dougla” in Trinidad) and my kids are also mixed. I live with depression, a chronic illness and other complications. I love my sister friends, Carnival, soca music (this groovy jam is on repeat now), reading (!!!), running, the sea, exploring new cultures, and solitude. I’m a firm believer in solo vacations. I speak fluent Spanglish, Trinidadian dialect, and English. My mom is the cutest, most selfless human being I know.
Walk us through the trajectory of your professional experience so far and how you wound up at The Carter Center.
I started my journalism career freelancing for newspapers and magazines before becoming a staff writer at a mid-sized daily newspaper in Florida. (This was before Twitter launched and you needed a dot-edu email address to register for Facebook.) After a stint in media relations, I became executive producer of social media for a TV newsroom, then moved into platform analytics and leading digital content strategy for multiple local newsrooms.
All these roles impacted my mental health, whether interviewing a grieving single mother, covering fatal car accidents, the steady buzz of the police scanner, dealing with online vitriol, supporting teams covering elections, natural disasters, and mass shooting after mass shooting — or wondering if I’d get laid off. It got to the point where my body had a visceral reaction when breaking news notifications popped on my phone.
The Carter Center’s Mental Health Program wasn’t just a chance for me to step back from being always on. I wanted to support journalists telling the mental health stories that needed to be told and help them look out for their own mental health.
What do you do as senior associate director of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism?
I support fellows and other journalists through coaching, training and mental health reporting resources. I oversee the fellowships’ operations and sustainability in the United States, Latin America, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. I’ve also been working behind the scenes with our small, mighty team for the past year to ensure that future fellows are more diverse, that more mental health projects address underserved communities and news deserts, and that we’re actively recruiting and supporting journalists of colour. Next up is adding more representative talent to our Fellowship Advisory Board.
You recently completed mental health first aid training. Tell us more about the training and why you feel it’s an especially useful workshop for journalists.
I took mental health first aid training in August 2019 and it was transformative, not just for approaching people dealing with trauma or helping others in the middle of a mental health crisis, but how to keep myself physically and mentally safe in the moment and after. It’s a short, skills-based training course that teaches you about mental health and substance use risk factors and warning signs, understanding their impact, how to offer initial help during a mental health crisis and connect people to appropriate care.
As a journalist, it was invaluable for understanding mental health as it surfaces more and more in coverage, interacting with people who’ve been through trauma, and understanding how to cope with trauma or mental health challenges. I wish I’d taken it sooner! You can find a course near you through Mental Health First Aid USA.
If you’re comfortable, tell us how mental illness has manifested in your life.
Having grown up in Trinidad, I had to overcome intense cultural stigma around mental health just to seek help and get on medication. Then came sharing my struggles with loved ones. I talked about how difficult that was in my TedxPortofSpain Talk last year.
I moved to the U.S. in my late teens, and have been navigating the immigration system and being Black in America for half my life. When I tell most U.S. citizens it took almost two decades and $20,000 in attorneys and filing fees to become a citizen too, they’re shocked. It’s been a trial by fire and I’m truly grateful to have attended a Historically Black College & University.
But for the past two decades, I’ve lived with a sense of uncertainty as a Black immigrant trying to become legal in my adopted country and watched more recently as immigrant rights have been eroded. I’ve been discriminated against because of my ethnicity, nationality, gender and age. I’ve been called a n****. I’ve been a token person of colour in a newsroom dealing with microaggressions, disparate pay and unpaid diversity labour. I stay on the phone with someone when I’m pulled over by police. I’ve paid taxes, but couldn’t seek social services. I’ve been hurt irreparably by people I loved for sharing my truth. I talk to my kids about race and allyship. I’ve inherited a different kind of generational trauma. And my experiences and efforts are constantly interrogated. It is layered trauma and it takes its toll.
You’ve previously shared some stellar self-care advice for journalists covering trauma. What else would you want fellow journalists—especially Black journalists—to keep in mind right now?
When you’re one of the only Black journalists in your newsroom elevating the voices of Black, Indigenous and communities of colour, especially now, it’s hard to step back for your mental health. But if you don’t take a break, your body will. If you get physically sick, you don’t have a choice. Before your body shuts down or you have a breakdown, take care of yourself. We need you. (And I have to plug here that The Carter Center’s Mental Health Program is supporting Wellness Check-in calls with Black journalists and allies in collaboration with Sarah Glover, former president of the National Association of Black Journalists. Follow @Sarah4NABJ or @CarterFellows or join the Diverse Social Media Editors and Digital Journalists Facebook group for info on upcoming calls.)
I’m Barbara Thelamour, a Black woman and assistant professor of psychology at Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College—and a second-generation Haitian American.
What can you share about your academic work and research?
A lot of the work that I do focuses on young people and how they're contending with the intersection of being both Black and immigrant in the U.S., where xenophobia has grown more explicit in recent years, and what it means to embrace American culture, what it means to be Black—but not Black American or African American.
What do you wish all immigrant communities would better understand about their role in the Black Lives Matter movement?
I think what some groups can kind of forget is that our rights and are intertwined. Despite the kind of relative privilege that some immigrant groups might have over others, every marginalized group has historically benefited from black liberation work, from voting rights to civil rights. We're all much, much, much more connected than the silos in which we often find ourselves allow us to see.
From time to time, I might come across Asian and Latinx immigrants who say, you know, where was the Black Lives Matter movement when we are being locked up in cages? Where was the Black Lives Matter movement during heightened COVID-related discrimination against Asians? But what's been fascinating to see is how other individuals of the same races respond to those narratives.
For example, when someone criticized the lack of similar outrage for undocumented immigrants separated from their families or locked up in cages, another Latinx individual educated the original poster on the harms of derailing the conversation.
Similarly, with Asian people, many have been making the connection between immigration rights and the civil rights movement. Hasan Minhaj, too, put out a video urging South Asian immigrants not to be silent and to address colorism among their own communities. That’s been heartening to see.
You can follow Barbara on Twitter at @B_theLove.
My name is Catherine Bisola Labiran and I am Nigerian — Yoruba, specifically. I was born in New York and raised in London, and currently live in New York, so life has come full circle. I work at Black Alliance for Just Immigration as the Gender Justice Program Coordinator, where my main focus involves research on the mental health and wellness of Black immigrant women and femmes. I also represent BAJI as an Advisory Committee member of National Bail Out, am a member of the HEAL ACT Coalition and a Planning Committee Member of United We Rise.
You’ve mentioned online that you have a deep love of writing. What is it about the medium that you appreciate so much?
I am fascinated by words because, like actions, they live longer than we do. It’s remarkable to consider how a single word has the capacity to radically transform our moods, conversations and relationships. It is this understanding that motivates me to treat all words as sacred. The care I have for words is intrinsically linked to the appreciation that I have for silence. I believe that silence, like isolation, provides us with the opportunity to hear our own thoughts before we share them with someone else. I believe that we would be better communicators, and ultimately better people, if we were more observant of what exists when words don’t.
What led to your current work with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration?
I actually studied psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, and initially, people were confused as to why I would want to study psychology given my very clear passion for social justice and writing. I, however, felt that an understanding of psychology was necessary given that I didn’t only want to know how a person, or group did something, I also wanted to understand why they did it.
Furthermore, I was interested in learning about intergenerational trauma as a way to begin thinking about intergenerational healing. After graduating from Emory, I worked at the U.S. Human Rights Network, where I began as an executive assistant and then later as the Human Rights Advocacy Coordinator. While at USHRN, I was responsible for connecting grassroots human rights movements to relevant mechanisms at the United Nations. For example, I set up civil society consultations for the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism and the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. During my final year of working with USHRN, I began pursuing my master’s degree in African Studies at Yale University, where my concentration was art and literature.
I was especially invested in researching how Nigerian literature has been used to advance human rights within the country. While at Yale, I was also awarded a fellowship to study Yoruba — my family’s indigenous language. After graduating from Yale, I knew that I wanted to combine my training in human rights, psychology and African studies. As the Gender Justice Program Coordinator at BAJI, I have been able to bring all of my experience, knowledge and creativity to the forefront.
For those of us who might not know much about BAJI, can you tell us what the organization does?
Sure! BAJI educates and engages Black communities, including those who are immigrants and those who are not, to organize and advocate for racial, social and economic justice. We have organizing committees in New York, Georgia, California and Arizona that build coalitions and initiate campaigns to push for racial justice. Our staff is comprised of people who have expertise in areas such as organizing, law, research and policy. We provide training and technical assistance to partner organizations and to the communities that we serve. We also initiate vibrant in-house dialogues between Black communities so that we can learn more about race, our diverse identities, racism, migration and globalization.
As a Black immigrant yourself—and a professional in this field of research and advocacy—what can you tell me about the Black immigrant experience that you feel the public and world of academia know little about?
A lot of people see the immigrant experience as either purely traumatic, or as an exceptional success story. Many people fail to pay attention to the nuances in people’s stories that would allow them to see that highs and lows oftentimes coexist. They like to sensationalize our stories, so if we are not in despair, or if we are not running for office then our stories are not seen as valuable. By adopting this reductionist view, they miss out on the richness of our experience as we navigate hardship, but also joy, love and happiness simultaneously.
You work in a sector that focuses on expanding access to healthcare for immigrant women and families. Why were you especially drawn to these subjects?
Immigrant women and femmes are oftentimes made to assume caregiving roles for their families. The amount of responsibilities that are placed on their shoulders takes a physical, spiritual and mental toll. Despite having to look after people, many are unable to look after themselves as they are unable to access our failing healthcare system. Once their health declines, their ability to care for their families declines, too. It is a never-ending cycle. I am drawn to doing this work because I believe that healthcare is a right and not a luxury. I believe that everyone should have access to free, quality, holistic healthcare.
How are you/BAJI working to address issues of healthcare access and mental health stigma for immigrants?
I currently serve on the Health Equity and Access under the Law (HEAL) Act Coalition, which aims to expand access to healthcare access for immigrant women and families. Last month, we worked alongside Senator Cory Booker’s office to get the HEAL Act introduced in the Senate. The HEAL Act, if passed, has a number of benefits including the removal of the five-year waiting period that immigrants have to endure before they are able to access Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
At BAJI, we also recently interviewed 84 Black immigrant women and femmes to learn about their mental health and wellness. During these interviews, several respondents shared that they had not spoken about mental health or the possibility of therapy before speaking with us. Through these kinds of conversations, we actively combat mental health stigma. We are excited to publish our report, so that more people will be able to see themselves in the stories and visions of our interviewees. We are also excited about the discussions that the report will generate between partners, families, and communities.
I’m Lebura Nwenu and I’m from Nigeria, but I call Atlanta home. While I don’t identify with a particular faith group, I am a believer of a higher power. Currently, I work at the International Rescue Committee as an immigration caseworker.
You also used to work in resettlement before you joined immigration, right? What do both roles entail?
Yes, I was originally very interested in the resettlement aspect of the IRC. I wanted to get my hands dirty and be part of that initial rehabilitation process with new arrivals, which involves all the basics, such as finding housing, teaching new immigrants about American customs, helping them secure jobs and education. And it was fantastic! Working with the resettlement department gave me the reassurance I didn’t know I needed.
But I have always been interested in law and now, as a caseworker within the immigration department, I have a chance to empower new immigrants by helping them with access to social services, citizenship tests, evaluation assessments and more.
The majority of your clients, you said, are also Black. Speaking from both professional and personal experience, what have you noticed is the most significant issue facing new Black immigrants?
Hmm, there are a lot! Being Black and an immigrant in America feels doubly negative. You're not only facing the issue of acceptance in a new culture, but you’re also facing discrimination because of the color of your skin. Immigrants have to work ten times as hard to prove themselves and get closer to the same level as non-immigrants. On top of language barriers (English is usually not their first language), most immigrants also don't understand the law of their new home, which usually results in them falling prey to the hunter and unable to rescue themselves.
All in all, the Black immigrant experience is not a beautiful sleep. It's a lot of turning, fighting, bad dreams, and a hot room with water deprivation to quench your taste or cool you down. Nothing is given out for free. They—we—work very, very hard to get to where we are at any given moment.
Do you have any advice for both immigrants and non-immigrants who might be thinking about protesting or getting involved in the Black Lives Matter movement?
To be a responsible ally, be patient. Be a student again. It's time to relearn, get involved in BLM organizations, and implement the mission in your work.
I have also been advising my own clients to know their rights if they do choose to go out and protest. It’s important to know the impact of an arrest on your immigration status, as well as the proper procedures and measures to take.
For more information about the IRC’s work, visit rescue.org.
A couple months ago when I was (still) struggling at home with two kids, managing my health, desperately worried about family, and fluctuating between some semblance of work and total despair, I kept falling down the rabbit hole that I shouldn’t feel that way because [insert privilege of choice here], that I should be doing more. My friend Masuma Ahuja responded with, “There are no shoulds.” Intellectually, you understand the importance of slowing down, but when you’re in a depressive episode, it’s hard to talk yourself out of that spiral. None of this is normal; none of this is easy. And “there are no shoulds.” It’s something I keep coming back to. And of course, Twitter is not the best place for nuanced discourse. Don’t let random people who don’t know a thing about your experience or struggles define you.
Between COVID-19 (which we're still not over, even though many seem to think so) and everything that's happening with the Black Lives Matter movement, this is an incredibly stressful time. The one piece of advice that I would give anyone—a tip I'm trying to stick to myself—is to unplug and take a break from the news cycle. As important as it is to stay engaged, we all need a break from the never-ending onslaught of terrible images, of death and of anger. But the beautiful thing about social media is that whenever you are ready to engage, you’ll find so many ways to participate without having to be out in the streets. I, for example, would love to be marching right now. However, I know that doing so means potentially putting my family at risk. What I’m doing instead: I'm writing letters, sending emails, posting on social media, donating and reading as much as I can. Then, at a certain point during the day, I shut everything off, and give myself space to be with loved ones.
I’m also clinging to the hope, too. Yes, I'm angry and sad about all of it, but at the same time, to see the number of people protesting, even if many (particularly white) people are very late to the game, is something to behold. I don't know how that will translate into policy because at the end of the day, that's what we desperately need, but seeing how different cities are kind of moving in the right direction is encouraging and I hope that even though I'm not on the streets with them, the little bit that I am doing from home is helpful. And I hope that we keep it up. The last thing we need is for this to fizzle out, but it’s been amazing to witness the growing momentum over the last couple of weeks.
Remember that you are human and not a machine. Capitalism tricks us into thinking that our goal is productivity when really, for many of us, it’s peace. Allow yourself rest and reset. If we, as a society, took more time to slow down we would cause much less harm to each other. Similarly, if we, as individuals, allow ourselves to slow down then we cause less harm to ourselves. Not only do we prevent harm, we welcome healing.
I can't advocate self-care enough. Be selfish when it comes to your well-being. I know it's easier said than done, but try. Do the little you can do—a little goes a long way. Personally, I am taking it one day and one step at a time. I indulge in new challenges to help shift my focus. I limit my news consumption. And I also make myself available for those who need me.
A handful of helpful resources:
How To Handle Emotional Burnout As You Keep Pushing For Anti-Racist Change, a guide from Bustle with tips from psychiatrists, mindfulness experts and social scientists
The Nap Ministry, a platform championing Black rest as a form of resistance against burnout culture and capitalism with free pop-up nap pods and workshops around Atlanta (when there isn’t, like, a global pandemic)
The Black Dream Escape, an intergenerational therapeutic practice promoting Black and Indigenous rest affirmations (also, lullaby sessions!)
A No-Panic Guide To Mental Health Help During The Pandemic from LAist with specific information for Californians but helpful for all
Therapy for Black Girls, an organization dedicated to combating the stigma around therapy that might prevent Black women from seeking care. Every Thursday, TFBG holds free group support sessions on Facebook.
Dive in Well, an organization offering digital classes on various wellness practices, such as donation-based digital events on breath-work
National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network, a healing justice organization committed to transforming mental health for queer and trans people of color with a database of featured practitioners
Open Path Collective: a nonprofit providing inclusive, affordable, in-office and virtual psychotherapy for clients who lack health insurance or whose health insurance lacks adequate mental health benefits
The UndocuBlack Guide for Mental Wellness Specialists, a downloadable resource patients can use while accessing care and service providers can use to educate themselves about caring for undocumented Black individuals
Akil and I first met while working at a virtual reality start-up, and he always joked that I was a “blur” that first week I started. Just “some new marketing person.” We both became really close friends and eventually, our friendship turned into more. I feel so lucky to now be married to my best friend.
Throughout our relationship, we’ve received both positive and negative comments, but the ones we choose to hold onto make us smile. I remember once, we were walking down the street, hand-in-hand when, out of nowhere, a stranger stopped us in our tracks just to tell us how beautiful we are together. Another time, at a check-out counter, someone told us they could just see the love we have for one another.
Like me, Akil is also somewhat of a first-generation American. He was born in Trinidad and moved to Brooklyn when he was two. So, in a sense, both of our families came from a land where there were more people who looked just like them than not.
I am a Pakistani-American and a child of two immigrants, one of whom survived war zones and forced migration from sub-state to sub-state. And still, I am a child of privilege.
Growing up on the outskirts of Atlanta’s North Fulton county, I was surrounded by the Black community. But we certainly lived in a predominantly middle-class/upper-middle-class area. Just next door, in South Fulton, schools were more likely to be run-down, and the teacher-student ratios were vastly different. It wasn’t until I learned about gerrymandering that I really began understanding how large of an issue the socioeconomic divide is—and how it disproportionately affects Black individuals.
I remember having a serious conversation with Akil once, about where we were in life and our expectations. In retrospect, my approach was both naive and embarrassing. It was the first time I saw him look at me with disappointment.
Raised by a single mom, Akil is the only one in his nuclear family to have gone to college. And unlike me, he had to figure a lot of it out on his own. You read about systemic racism and the trickle-down effects of various socioeconomic circumstances, but it feels different when it’s your family.
I worry a lot, especially when Akil is around my South Asian community. After all, it’s no secret that South Asians are notoriously prejudiced against Black Americans. I often catch myself worrying Akil will get looks in our prayer hall—or that he’ll be stopped from entering the hall altogether. It’s a gut-wrenching feeling to think that at any given point, your loved one could be discriminated against, could be pulled over or worse—just for the color of their skin.
I’ll never understand what Akil is feeling right now. But I also know I have to keep trying to understand, because the truth is, our children may have to endure the very same realities. And nothing hits us harder than that. He keeps telling me that yes, it’s important to be a part of the change and to speak up. But it’s also good to remember that sometimes revolutions are slow.
They may be slow, but I have to admit, I’ve been so pleasantly shocked with how my family has been reacting to everything that’s happening right now. I have cousins who have literally been on the streets protesting every day, others who’ve been donating to various causes and sharing resources and even more family members who have been emailing and writing letters to state legislators. It’s really so beautiful. We have felt supported, and in good company.
Disclaimer on the above resource for non-Black POC: The responses included in this file are by no means a guide on how to hold the most appropriate conversations, nor do they all align with our own preferred and vetted approaches. We highly recommend that you first read through the links on the document’s essential resources page before browsing what's worked and what hasn't for our respondents. The resources on the essential resources page have been compiled by experts with extensive knowledge. What we're doing is providing anonymous feedback in hopes that those who may have tried everything with no luck will find something useful as a barrier-breaker. You’re welcome to submit your own experiences here. Additionally, we request that you be mindful and not circulate this resource in a way that could harm the Black community i.e. posting screenshots on public pages or sending this directly to Black individuals. The pushback included is unkind and painful to hear. Our purpose as non-Black POC is to challenge and dismantle any such discourse, not to amplify it.
- Fiza Pirani, Nabila Jamal
My personal anti-racist go-to resources.
This is absolutely not an exhaustive list.
For the latest on petitions, protests, information on elections and where to donate your money, click here.
A guide to starting anti-racist conversations with friends and family (DoSomething.org)
For South Asian power-building and movement work (Equality Labs)
Allyship 101: How to act with intention (@SouthAsians4BlackLives)
Letters for Black Lives (multiple translations via Medium)
Implicit bias test (Harvard University)
Infographic: Overt vs. covert white supremacy (@theconsciouskid)
Anti-racist reading list from Ibram X. Kendi (Chicago Public Library)
That’s all, folks. Take care of yourselves.
Thank you to editing champ Farah for contributing your talents—and to Kari Cobham, Nureen Gulamali, Catherine Labiran, Lebura Nwenu and Barbara Thelamour, for sharing your stories and expertise. And a very special thanks to Foreign Bodies Sustaining Members Hannah B., Safurah B., Alex C., Rebecca C., Rodrigo C., Katie H., Liz S., Puja S., Roz T. Hossein T. and my mama, Safia P. Without you, this work would not be possible.
Foreign Bodies is an email newsletter centering immigrant and refugee experiences with a mission to de-stigmatize mental illness through storytelling. It’s written and curated by Atlanta-based writer Fiza Pirani with copyediting and fact-checking help from Boston-based journalist Hanaa’ Tameez and traveling journalist Farahnaz Mohammed. Want to contribute your time or share your own #ForeignBodies story? Fill out this form and be sure to say hi on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.
If you're thinking about suicide or worried about someone who might be, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text 741741 to connect to a crisis counselor in the USA. You can also find a wealth of culture- or language-specific recommended resources on our landing site, foreignbodies.net.