Fear of the Unknown

Though built by immigration, America does not always welcome immigrants

The Threat of Unfamiliarity

Rabe Yar sat next to her friend in their ninth grade art classroom. They were regular teenagers, holding a regular high school conversation.

But not in English. The girls spoke their native Burmese language, catching the attention of two American students who approached the friends. While Rabe couldn’t yet speak fluent English, she knew enough to understand what they were saying.

“You must support Osama bin Laden,” Rabe remembers them saying as they eyed the hijab that symbolized her Muslim faith. “Unless you take that off.”

Rabe didn’t entirely understand who bin Laden was at the time, because the 9/11 attacks had occurred six years before she immigrated to America. But the students relentlessly pressured her to remove the hijab. When Rabe tried to turn away, one of them suddenly clutched the headscarf and attempted to pull it off. She escaped the grip and managed to move to another part of the room, adjusting her ruffled hijab as she went.

She wanted to tell someone what had happened, but she didn’t trust her English to explain it.

To natural citizens, discrepancies in language, religion, and culture might cause insecurities that contribute to a fear of difference. People respond to immigration in a variety of ways, said Ball State University sociology professor Ione DeOllos. At one end of the continuum are those who react completely in fear or violence, usually because they do not understand the other culture. Rabe’s experience of confrontation demonstrates that problem.

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