Queens College reflects on life of new immigrants

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For years, Queens has been called one of the most diverse places on the planet.

While the title of diversity has been proudly proclaimed by borough politicians, researchers at Queens College have spent the last two decades exploring what that diversity actually means and how it affects the everyday lives of the 2.3 million people who live in the borough.

"What we did is really look closely at how each of these communities operated and how they interacted with each other," said anthropology professor Roger Sanjek.

Academics at Queens College will present the culmination of their years of study with a panel discussion Tuesday called "The New Immigrants and Old Americans Project at Queens College: Reflections, 1982-2002."

The event marks the end of the six-book project, the publication of the final two books in the series and Sanjek's winning of the prestigious 2002 J.I. Staley Prize for his work, "The Future of Us All."

An anthropologist who studied the populations of Brazil and Ghana, Sanjek came up with the idea for the project while riding a bus in Queens in the early 1980s.

"I looked at this sea of faces as I got on the bus," he said. "And it hit me: The new immigrants are here."

Sanjek assembled a team of postdoctoral, graduate, undergraduate and community resident researchers. Seven of those researchers produced six books, which included studies of the borough's Taiwanese, Indian, Korean and Hispanic groups, as well as the black population of Corona in addition to Sanjek's work.

One of those researchers, Madhulika Khandelwal, had her book, "Becoming American, Being Indian: An Immigrant Community in New York City," published in November.

"It's actually doing away with a lot of assumptions that people have about any group," Khandelwal said of her work. "We assume a group comes here as one ethnicity, and in my research I was trying to show they are coming from many different backgrounds."

Khandelwal pointed out that Indians not only come from India, but from Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Caribbean. While some are successful, others struggle economically, she said.

Khandelwal said part of an immigrant's identity is formed from the different ethnic groups around him or her.

"What they are is also their relation to the groups living around them," she said. "It's not like one solid homogeneous group living by itself.

Both Sanjek and Khandelwal said their research revealed the strong role of women in forging bridges between various communities, even among societies where women traditionally have subservient roles.

Sanjek said different ethnic groups often get to know each other through neighborhood issues. He pointed to an example of an Italian woman as head of her Corona block association reaching out to her Hispanic and Asian neighbors in order to strengthen her group.

"It's a slow process," Sanjek said. "People have really come to understand that they are residents of Queens and Queens neighborhoods. They see they have the same things to complain about. If you all complain in the same sort of way, then you have something in common."

The project focused on the neighborhoods of Elmhurst, Corona, Jackson Heights and Flushing, although it touched on almost all neighborhoods in the borough.

For the most part, the different ethnic groups live in harmony, Sanjek said.

"Some people might expect that people wouldn't be able to get along with each other," he said. "But in this part of Queens, Elmhurst, Corona, Jackson Heights and Flushing, there has been a relative lack of conflict and antagonism."

Sanjek said he painted such a rosy picture in his book, in part due to the time period of study. He began his work in 1982 and finished in 1996.

"People had gotten to know each other," he said. "In the 1970s, things were really bad. People thought every immigrant was an illegal alien."

The panel discussion will begin at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, March 25, on the fourth floor of the student union building at Queens College, at 65-30 Kissena Blvd. The event is open to the public. For reservations, call 718-997-3050.

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

Updated 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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