An immigrant from Bangladesh who came to America with her family while still a child, Rebeka Islam joined the group Asian Pacific Islander American Vote MI (APA VOTE MI) as a youth intern a decade ago. Now its executive director, she leads an organization committed to obtaining justice and equity for the Asian American and Pacific Islander community through grassroots mobilization, civic engagement, leadership development, and coalition building. As part of our AAPI Heritage Month activities, we talked with Ms. Islam about topics ranging from her experiences as an immigrant, the surge of violence against people in her community, and a book she recommends but hasn’t yet read.
How do you identify?
As an Asian-American Muslim female.
How old were you when your family immigrated to the US?
When I was almost five, my father moved to America from Bangladesh. My mother, sister and I all came three months later. I had a Hollywood vision of America as a place where everyone lived in luxury. But reality hit quickly. We arrived in November, flying into New York City. I remember how cold it was. In our suitcases we had clothes and food. That was it. The first place we lived was a one-bedroom apartment in Queens shared by six people.
What was life for you like as an immigrant child trying to adapt to a new way of life?
There was a lot of anxiety around fitting in, especially during my first few years here, when I was still trying to learn English. I couldn’t communicate with my teachers or the other students. And the other kids would make fun of my accent when I did try to speak English. There were a lot of culture barriers. It was very difficult. There are a lot of subtle things that can make someone feel like they are an “other.” Discrimination doesn’t always take the form of physical or verbal abuse. Sometimes it is as simple as the way people look at you.
What was your family’s economic situation growing up?
When I was younger, my family came to this country in search of opportunities, searching for a better life, and when we arrived here, we struggled to make ends meet for a long time, and we were on our own. We had no one there to help us when we needed help. And I saw other families around me going through the same thing.
And how did that experience help shape the person you’ve become?
It made me determined to see to it that no one I encounter will ever have to suffer or endure hardship the way that my family and other families I know have had to in the past, and to empower all citizens to speak and participate in matters of civic engagement.
How did you first become connected to APIA?
It started when I was in high school, and we were required to do four hours of public service to graduate. One of my mentors suggested volunteering with the organization, which, at the time, was involved in making sure people responded to the 2010 census so that they’d be counted. So, I volunteered and started making calls. And I discovered that I loved phone banking.
Everyone I talked with would tell me stories about being discriminated against, and how much of a struggle it was to settle in a new country. All these stories from other people that reflected what my family had gone through. After my four hours were completed, I wanted to keep coming back to keep hearing those stories. That was the beginning of my journey to become a voice for the voiceless, a journey that still continues.
You recently participated in efforts to have the Michigan Legislature recognize Feb. 1 as World Hijab Day. Why was that?
This is an issue that’s very important to me. I really believe that one of America’s greatest strengths is its diversity and its ability to embrace different cultures. For me and many of my Muslim sisters, the hijab is an expression of our community, our strength, our religious practices. It is a blessing, and I wanted to uplift that message as a way to combat prejudice.
What has your reaction been to the recent surge in violence against members of the AAPI community?
First, attacks on members of the AAPI community are nothing new, including here in Detroit. Forty years ago, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was beaten to death with a baseball bat by two white autoworkers in a racially motivated hate crime. The men who killed him never served a day in prison. They were given probation. It was an immense miscarriage of justice that sparked the modern movement to combat hate against AAPI people.
There has been, however, an increase in the number of attacks on AAPI people since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic because of the hateful rhetoric blaming China for the outbreak. The group Stop AAPI Hate has reported that, from March 2020 through December 2021, it received reports of nearly 11,000 hates incidents directed at members of the AAPI community nationwide. Just unspeakable numbers. And those are only the incidents that were reported. Many others go unreported.
Last year, after a white man went on a shooting spree in Atlanta and killed eight people -- including six women of Asian descent -- we held a rally in Detroit to pay our respects to the individuals who died and to express our collective sadness and anger. We were saying, “Enough is enough. We’re tired of being voiceless, misunderstood, bullied, harassed, killed.”
Our goal is to dismantle structures of systematic racism, white supremacy, and all forms of hate.
Is there a book you’d recommend people read to better understand the immigrant experience?
This may sound funny, but I’d like to recommend a book I haven’t actually read yet: The Last Boat Out of Shanghai by Helen Zia. Everyone I talk to tells how moving the book is, portraying the sadness felt immigrants forced to leave their loved ones behind. I still remember our last days in Bangladesh, saying goodbye to our grandparents, watching my mother hugging my grandmother for the last time. So, I can recommend the book, but I’m putting off reading it because I’m not yet ready to relive those feelings.
Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you’d like to mention?
Yes. From June 16-19 there will be a Remembrance & Rededication for Vincent Chin in Detroit. There will be a whole series of events honoring his legacy. Along with confronting the tsunami of hate being directed at Asian Americans and pacific Islanders, we will also be talking about the importance for people of all races – Asian American people like me, Black and Brown Americans, white people – to mobilize and fight together against intolerance and build a community that embraces everyone. A community of people who stand in solidarity against racism and discrimination in the fight for equal justice.