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When Do You Cease Being an Immigrant?

Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

OnOn July 14, 2019, my funny, generous, and loving Uncle Zed was killed while being robbed by a passenger in his taxi. Yes, he was an “immigrant from Bangladesh,” as local news outlets pointed out — but he was also 65-years-old, and the story of his life shouldn’t be summed up in a single decision he made over 30 years ago.

As a New Yorker, nothing encapsulates the beauty of migration better than Lady Liberty. The sepia-toned photos at Ellis Island narrate a romanticized concept of immigration, even though these travelers experienced profound struggle and loss. Overcoming those challenges is part of the immigrant experience. Although it’s difficult, it elicits a sense of pride to take part in a tradition that has defined the United States since its founding.

Today, however, it seems that “immigrant” has become a derogatory term, one reserved for people of color who migrate to so-called developed nations. After all, we don’t imagine the Swede who emigrates to France as an immigrant in the same way we do a Guatemalan who seeks asylum in the United States. The new definition of an immigrant is falsely perceived as lazy and dangerous, someone who’s out to steal jobs and resources from American citizens.

This negative connotation is the reason my family urged me to speak to members of the press who were lingering outside our home for two days after Uncle Zed’s death. They wanted me to paint a picture of a man who was more than an immigrant.

The label of immigrant weighs heavy on me because I don’t know which interpretation sticks — that of the unwelcome foreigner or the embodiment of the American Dream.

Zed had a son and a daughter, both thriving adults. Although Zed moved to the United States with his family nearly 30 years ago, it wasn’t to escape poverty, war, or persecution. They migrated to be near family — most of Zed’s siblings had already made the move. He also wanted to put down roots in the United States to satisfy a sense of adventure and curiosity. He wondered what he could accomplish here that he hadn’t already accomplished back home. Uncle Zed was an entrepreneur; what better way to embody that spirit than to take a chance on a new home country?

Zed had a master’s degree in computer science and an MBA. He had held white-collar corporate jobs in Bangladesh, but it was only after he arrived in the United States that he struggled. Here, being an “immigrant” with an overseas education meant he needed to prove himself. Still, he didn’t need to drive a taxi. He did it to stay busy. Zed was an American citizen for over 20 years. I wonder how his story would have changed in peoples’ minds if the media headlines read “New York native and American citizen killed at work.”

He liked to entertain and frequently catered meals for his family and friends. He enjoyed discussing politics, religion, and cricket. My uncle had an infectious, albeit unique, laugh. He loved music and always complained about feeling hot even though he rarely took off his jacket. He had friends everywhere he went — many people in the Bangladeshi community in New York City knew him. He was also stubborn; he drove that cab even when we all told him it was time for him to retire.

Our family didn’t ask for the publicity around Zed’s death. Now that it happened, I wonder what, if anything, the story does for people. It doesn’t impact him — he isn’t here — but what was written about Zed is incomplete. A story that doesn’t paint a full picture can’t be much of a story at all, can it?

Unfortunately, the label of immigrant weighs heavy on me because I don’t know which interpretation sticks — that of the unwelcome foreigner or the embodiment of the American Dream. Maybe it’s both. The immigrant is a blessing and a curse for nations that once relied on population growth in order to remain sustainable but now struggle to equitably distribute resources among the public. The immigrant, however, is most if not all of us — we’re all living on land that was never originally ours.

Immigrant or not, Uncle Zed lived and died at home.

SEO Content Writer + Strategist || Freelance hustler by day, fiction writer by night | www.mansuraghaffar.com

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