How to be an Emotional Ally to the Immigrant Community

Written By Nathanie Y. Yaskey

When I first heard the statement, “we are living in unprecedented times,” I chuckled. The word “unprecedented” is so grandiose within itself that it reflexively induces a cringy feeling of melodrama.

I write comedy, I tell jokes on stage, I prefer to keep things light whenever and wherever possible. This was my attitude going into quarantine. I (like many others) thought the world was just being melodramatic and as soon as we got over this “flu,” Oprah would finally run for president, Cardi B would be her trusted Vice President, Beyoncé would be Secretary of State, and our new national anthem would be “Who Run the World? Girls!” … SPOILER ALERT: things didn’t exactly turn out that way.

Now, over six months into quarantine, I shudder to think that I ever remotely found entertainment in the current state of affairs. As social unrest grows louder, as violence catapults at an alarming rate, as extremist groups are birthed from pain and frustration, as othered bodies are slayed and politicized, as society increasingly places more value upon property than humanity, as life as we know it shatters upon the golden chandelier fan of America, all I can say is; “Um. Yeah. We’re definitely living in unprecedented times.”

As an African immigrant and naturalized Black citizen, I have experienced a range of emotions throughout my quest to naturalization, but nothing as sharp and soul-piercing as what quarantine has forced me (and so many other immigrants) to reckon with: fear.

We see ourselves unfairly generalized in print, we see our parent’s sacrifices dismissed, we see our pain spectacled. These experiences reduce us to a state of sheer fear and panic.

If you are looking for ways to support and peacefully embolden the immigrant community—even whilst safely distancing— please continue reading.

  1. More than anything else, we want to be heard. The acknowledgement of our humanity and right to occupy space can be as simple as asking, “How are you feeling?” And genuinely listening to our response.
  2. Silence speaks. If you don’t know what to say, that’s okay! Few things are more upsetting than describing a personal experience to someone from another cultural background who then morphs said experience into a particular language, code, or context that they are more comfortable with addressing. For instance, the time my Dad was publicly demeaned for having an accent is not the same as the time your Dad was publicly demeaned for incorrect grammar; I’m sure that both were scaring and painful in their own way, but reframing and comparing trauma is a dangerous game for all involved parties.
  3. Dialogue, not monologue. Talk to us, not at Over the years, I’ve come to realize one universal truth: dialogue empathizes, monologue sympathizes. Sympathy rarely does much good.
  4. Accentism. Guess what, folks?! It’s real! It’s discriminatory and it is not going anywhere until its damaging effects are properly addressed. My father is the smartest man I know, yet when he makes phone calls in America, I speak on his behalf. Not because he’s not fluent in English (he’s actually fluent in four languages), rather, the level of respect that he is treated with drastically changes when a stranger associates his accent with mutism. If you see this being done in public, call it out. It has been my experience that most people don’t even realize that their tone is inappropriate until they are confronted about it. Remember, ignorance does not equate maleficence.
  5. Speak out and speak up, but do not speak for These days, wars are waged on social media left and right. Interestingly enough, I often see people lending voice to the suffering of a group that they have no cultural ties to. Empathy is great, but self-righteous indignation on behalf of a marginalized group is, at its very root, based in colonialism and inherent disrespect. When you speak for me, you are unilaterally telling me that you can do a better job of evoking my own feelings; you are insinuating that you have a stronger voice than I do. Now, if you decide to respond to an offensive post on your own behalf, that’s great! Believe it or not, you can acknowledge your lack of first-hand experience whilst still making your point. For instance, a 28-year-old Black woman who is a naturalized American citizen, I would never try to speak on behalf of all 80-year-old Caucasian women who were born and raised in Australia. That’s to say, when discussing something that is beyond the scope of my lived experience, I provide my point of view strictly as someone outside of the demographic of which that issue directly impacts.
  6. Understand that we experience historic events differently, and that’s okay. I still remember the day of the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks. I vividly remember my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Pope, wheeling in a television into the classroom and keeping the channel on CNN; she casually ate a sandwich as we watched graphic footage of people jumping from what seemed to be the height of the sky. In the coming days, I saw the nation come together in a way that I had never seen before. At the time, my family and I did not yet have our green cards as we were still under Political Asylum. I remember overhearing teachers and other adults talk about immigrants and the need for stricter immigrant policies. I remember feeling, in the pit of my stomach, intense fear that my family and I would be forced to return to Sierra Leone, where we would most certainly have been persecuted. As the weeks passed, galvanized patriotism morphed into threatening language and threatening language ultimately erupted into hateful xenophobia. My mother was so scared for our safety, that she rushed out and bought “Proud to be an American” t-shirts for my siblings and I (mine featured Scooby Doo standing in full salute before a very bright, beaded and sparkly American flag). My mom warned me not to tell people where I was from and to only speak when I was spoken to (my accent was still distinguishable at that point). I share this story to illustrate the importance of recognizing that our lived experiences are different; many Americans remember the immediate aftermath of 9/11 as a time of altruism, heroism, sacrifice, brotherhood and sisterhood … while, I remember those aspects, I also experienced penetrating fear that was distinctive to being a new immigrant to the United States.
  7. I will end where I began; listen. Even within our silence, we are screaming to be heard. We are not complicit nor complacent and we are every bit as human as you and your loved ones. Sometimes the strongest support that you can offer is an open-mind and a conscientious ear that does not impose the need to direct, change, or adapt our language.

Yes, we are living in “unprecedented times, and unprecedented times call for unprecedented actions. Unprecedented actions yield unprecedented results. If my 28-years of life has taught me anything, it has taught me that humanity —at its very core— is inherently good. Americans are strong, adaptable, and more often than not, willing to listen to that which defies everything that they have known to be true through their own lived experience.

When I attend peaceful protests, I see people of every race and creed beside me. When I march for gender equality, I see men steadily matching my pace and chanting in unity. When I disagree with others, I see them willing to listen and grapple with foreign concepts that they once considered beyond their comprehension. When I see parents separated from their children, newcomers degraded on the national stage, I also see volunteers rushing to the streets in protest, lawyers spending days at a time in airports ready to offer pro-bono services to detainees, young people stepping away from computer screens and into the street because they understand that actions speak louder than words … I see resistance.

Today, stay calm, reach out to an immigrant and ask, “How are you feeling?”


What’s there to lose? After all, only through unprecedented compassion can we bring about unprecedented change.

One Love.