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'I belong here': Immigrants share their stories at virtual panel discussion

Having immigrated 23 years ago from China and now working as pharmaceuticals team leader at Pfizer, Shengquan Duan is proud to call America his home.

But in recent years, he has started feeling some uneasiness.

He has seen people utilize social media to demonize immigrants, "and their ideologies have been brought into the mainstream media, and their rhetoric has been adopted by the policymakers."

Duan used three words to capture the impact he has felt from the spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic: anger, frustration and fear. He said he worries every day about his family, and said it's "so un-American that in 2021, we still need to worry about our own safety because of our race."

Duan was one of three panelists at a virtual discussion the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut held Tuesday called "American Identity and Immigration: Developing a More Perfect Union." The moderator was Sunil Bhatia, professor and chair in the human development department at Connecticut College and an immigrant from India.

Chamber President and CEO Tony Sheridan said he and Bhatia began discussing this event in January, after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Sheridan said aggression toward Asian-Americans, and the Black Lives Matter movement heightened by the police murder of George Floyd, also showed the need to formulate an event addressing racism in our community. Duan noted that whenever there's a social or economic crisis, immigrants become scapegoats.

Bhatia asked the panelists about what being an immigrant means to them in this moment, when they have and haven't felt like they belonged, and the microaggressions they've experienced.

"I just refuse to feel like I'm not valued or feel like I did not play my part in making this country what it is today," said Ornet Hines, who immigrated from Jamaica in 2002 and now works as assistant vice president and branch manager at Liberty Bank. She later added, "I feel like I belong here, because I have something to contribute to this country; I have contributed to this country."

When it comes to microaggressions like offensive questions or jokes, she says she "can't stop to educate everyone who's going to have a misconception on something." But Hines said unaddressed microaggressions can lead to something more, and when she does feel something is worth addressing, she tries to educate people.

The third panelist was Liam Sampson, who immigrated from South Africa in 1997 as a 2-year-old and now works as a structural engineer at Electric Boat. He said he sometimes doesn't admit he was born in South Africa, to avoid anti-immigrant prejudice.

"As I was growing up, people assumed maybe I wasn't properly educated, or I like a particular food, or one of my parents may not be there," said Sampson, who grew up in a predominantly white suburb of Chicago.

Bhatia acknowledged the vulnerability of the panelists in sharing their experiences, noting that it takes courage to speak about feeling like you don't belong.

e.moser@theday.com

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