In a world that endorses global communication and connectivity, brought about by technological innovation and increasing mobility, the immigrant faces a primal human experience. What can we learn from immigrants in terms of the ways they transform themselves? How do they move from isolation and marginalization to innovation and leadership? How do they tackle those voices that urge them to stay put and resist change?
The immigrant journey is, among other things, a journey toward finding new allegiances; a movement toward taking an opportunity to develop a different point of view about themselves as well as their role in a particular society. Often, such journey involves forming or joining new communities within their own ethnic and/or linguistic boundaries. What is more difficult, however, especially for those of us who have the chance to become permanent residents in or citizens of a new country is the challenge to become integral members of already-established communities. As immigrants we come to embrace norms, practices, and emotions very different from those of our native countries. In that sense an immigrant’s journey involves one of humanity’s most universal and progressive activities—learning. Active and eager to learn, immigrants find new ways to plug into unfamiliar situations.
Leaving their native countries and re-establishing themselves in a new place, immigrants are, in a way, reborn into a new language. As they use the English language through their work as doctors, scientists, writers, musicians, teachers, researchers, and entrepreneurs, they not only transplant their diverse pattern of thinking, they transform it. These hard-working professionals offer new words to the English language and create “Englishes” for many essential fields—from labor and creativity through art and music to business and computer science.
Learning new codes of behavior and communication, finding innovative ways to articulate the multiplicity of their experiences, immigrants contribute new ideas to growing economies. Taking on a new name, signifying their transformative and powerful rebirth into the new language and new culture, often marks their new identity. A striking example of such transformation, which even inspired Shakespeare’s Othello, comes from al-Ḥasan ibn Muḥammad al-Wazzān al-Zayyātīor al-Fāsī, also known as Leo Africanus (1485–1554), an
Islamic scholar from the Kingdom of Granada on the Iberian Peninsula. For four hundred years, Leo’s writings remained a principal sources of Europe’s information about Islam.[i] As a Muslim fearing the persecution by Catholics in Granada, Leo was among a group of Muslim elites who immigrated to North Africa. While traveling on one of his commercial and diplomatic missions, he was captured by Christian pirates and enslaved. Due to his extraordinary intelligence, which immediately became evident, Leo was presented as a “gift” to Pope Leo X. After freeing him, the pontiff persuaded him to profess Christianity in 1520. Under the new name of Giovanni Leone (John Leo), he learned Latin and Italian and taught Arabic in Rome. His openness to adopting a new identity was largely responsible for his success and reputation throughout the centuries.
Like Rome during the Renaissance, New York (along with other cities, in the United States and elsewhere) encourages contributions by highly educated immigrants who breathe new life into old industries. Ukrainian Jan Koum, developer of Whatsapp; Russian Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google; Greek Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post; Hungarian Andrew Grove, founder of Intel; South African Elon Musk, founder of aerospace manufacturer Space X and auto company Tesla are just a few of the leading figures who remind us of how immigrants cannot only survive but thrive.
Foreign-born and US-educated researchers have taken over Silicon Valley and their innovative projects have transformed the world: Deepak Aatresh from India and Felicia Borkovi from Romania founded Aditazz, which aims to revolutionize building construction; Taher Abbasi, Shireen Vali, and Pradeep Fernandes founded Cellworks, designing new therapies that target a range of health issues; Amit Jain from India and Roger Hajjar from Lebanon, who studied at Boston University, started high-def video wall maker Prysm.[ii]
Beyond research, leadership and entrepreneurial invention, artists, curators, writers and educators pioneered global, cultural and linguistic communication with art exhibits and publications in many countries and languages. Syrian-born artist Mohannad Orabi and art historian Maymanah Farhat organized exhibitions in Dubai, Beirut, and London, presenting a side of Syria’s recent history that lies beyond the talking points of the news media. The artistic work of Albanian Italian artist Anila Rubiku deals with such issues as the immigrant experience (Venice Biennale 2011); dictators and their toxic egos (Tel Aviv Museum 2014); the “meaning” of home (Hammer Museum, LA, 2013); the future of “Cities and Democracy” (Venice Architectural Biennale, 2008); “Albania: women, justice and the law—Abused women imprisoned for murdering their ‘men”’ (5th Thessaloniki Biennale, 2015).[iii] The curating work of Greek and Roman art by Greek-born archaeologists and art historians, Angelos Chaniotis, Nikolaos Kaltsas and Ioannis Mylonopoulos for a New York exhibit at the Onassis Cultural Center entitled “A World of Emotions: Ancient Greece 700 B.C. – 200 A.D.” emphasizes the central role of emotions in politics, culture, institution, and domestic life in ancient Greek, and by extension, modern society. The difficulty of reading emotions in cross-cultural situations accurately is another aspect demonstrated in the exhibit making the public aware of possible miscommunications that occur due to misjudgment of another’s emotions.[iv] Swiss-born Professor and theoretical cosmologist at Imperial College, London, Roberto Trotta, published At the Edge of the Sky: All you Need to Know about All-There-Is (2014), aimed at eliminating jargon in scientific research. With only a thousand words at his disposal, Trotta tells the tale of the Big Bang and the birth of the universe all the way through to theories of its future, thus opening a dialogue with the public about centuries-old issues about astronomy and cosmology.[v]
Despite an unstoppable frenzy of global technological, scientific, and artistic innovation and development of ideas, women represent only a small segment. Out of a total of 52 percent of U.S. innovators (with either one or both parents born outside the United States or not U.S. citizens) only 12 percent are women.[vi] Often, the multivalent roles of women as caregivers, mothers, housewives and laborers undermine the quality of their personal and professional lives. At the same time large numbers of immigrant women who contribute to the global economy remain unrecognized working either as laborers in sweat shops or as sex-slaves in the multimillion-dollar industry of sex trafficking. Of the 4.5 million victims forced into exploitation worldwide, 98 percent are women and girls. Their stories of survival deserve to be heard.
This volume, among other things, captures a wide range of experiences of immigrants—human beings whose efforts to find a home in the world captures a similar effort to find a language that feels and sounds familiar—a language of their own. To address the question of one of the contributors in this volume, “In a massively globalized world, where or what is our home?” immigrants who move from the margins of society to success and acknowledgement respond that they gain a sense of belonging through their intellectual work, which begins and ends with language—the languages of business, of academic institutions, of politics, of networking, and of emotions. For before individuals start to feel at home in a nation at an official level by acquiring citizenship, they start to belong unofficially by learning ways to make themselves understood. At the same time innovation, technology, and entrepreneurial work offer them a passport to a global, trans-regional and trans-temporal citizenship. The space of such global citizenship is occupied by partnerships, allegiances, and relationships that begin with language, that is plural, Englishes.
[i] Aakanksha Gaur, “Leo Africanus: Islamic Scholar.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. July 20, 2017. See also: Natalie Zemon Davis, Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth Century Muslim Between Worlds. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.
[ii] Yatin Mundkur, “Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Vital for American Innovation.” Techonomy, January 22, 2014. Web. July 20, 2017.
[iii] The Foreign Policy Magazine Editors. “A World Disrupted: The Leading Global Thinkers of 2014.” Foreign Policy Online. Web. July 20, 2017.
[iv] Angelos Chaniotis, “A World of Emotions: The Making of an Exhibition.” The Institute Letter Spring 2017. Princeton: Institute for Advanced Study, 2017, p. 12-13.
[v] Roberto Trotta, “The Power of Simplicity: Explaining All-There-Is with the Most Common Thousand Words.” CAPJournal 16 (December 2014), p. 5-7. Web. July 20, 2017.
[vi] According to the 2016 survey of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), immigrants are responsible for a large and vital component of U.S. innovation: more than 35.5 percent of U.S. innovators were born outside the United States. Another 10 percent were born in the United States but have at least one parent born abroad. More than 17 percent are not U.S. citizens, yet they are making invaluable contributions to U.S. innovation. Adams Nager, David M. Hart, Stephen Ezell, Robert D. Atkinson, “The Demographics of Innovation in the United States.” ITIF Online, February 24, 2016. Washington: Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Web. July 20, 2017.
*This essay constitutes the Epilogue of a volume edited by Catalina Florescu entitled “Transnational Narratives of Englishes in Exile” forthcoming by Lexington Books in 2017.