Our VoiceImmigration

Book Review: The Accidental American

Guest Blogger • Nov 10, 2009

accident_american_pic“It is always about race,” says Rinku Sen, the Executive Director of the Applied Research Center. “The people who advocate for restricting the number of new immigrants talk about jobs, disease, and demand on social services, but they are really talking about keeping out people of color. It is important for the people who want a more sensible immigration policy to understand what the anti-immigration forces really mean. The restrictionists count on us being silent.”

To get this idea across, Rinku Sen wrote a book with Fekkak Mamdouh called “The Accidental American – Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization.” (2008, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers). She has informative chapters on the failed attempt to pass the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill in 2007, global immigration, and the before and after of the attacks of 9/11. But what drives her story is the account of immigrant Fekkak Mamdouh.

Sen follows Mamdouh from his home in Casablanca, Morocco, to New York City. He finds work as a busboy in a restaurant, and then gets promoted to waiter in better restaurants in New York because he speaks French and English. By the time Mamdouh was 35, he was making $50,000 a year as a waiter at Windows on the World on the 106th and 107th floors of the Twin Towers, the most profitable restaurant in the world. He had also become the union shop steward for HERE Local 100 responsible for 16 other waiters and busboys.

The morning of 9/11, he was home asleep since he had worked the 4 pm to midnight shift the day before. When he learned of the attacks, he met with other workers from the restaurant and became the “Accidental Case Worker.” Three unions created the Immigrant Workers’ Assistance Alliance to work through the maze of assistance after the attack. Mamdouh worked as the bridge between giant agencies like the Red Cross and grief-stricken individuals stranded by the loss of their jobs or loved ones.

The next phase could be called “Accidental Organizer.” HERE Local 100 asked Mamdouh to work with a new organizer named Saru Jayaraman, a 26-year-old Indian-American woman, to organize restaurant workers. Saru has a law degree from Yale and experience organizing immigrants on Long Island. Together Saru and Mamdouh learned on the job, from fighting one restaurant for fifteen jobs, to becoming a force all over Manhattan for both back-of-the-house busboys and dishwashers, mostly people of color, and the white workers at the front of the restaurants. They created the Restaurant Opportunity Center of New York in 2002.

In every one of his jobs, Mamdouh is the victim of racism. After 9/11, he was interrogated by the police for wearing a Red Cross name badge when he clearly looked Arabic. When he starts as a busboy in the back of the restaurant, he sees that the white people are out front with the customers. When he moves up to waiter, he learns how the white managers have an illegal system to routinely steal tips from both the waiters and bussers. As he builds ROC New York, he and Saru decide that it must include both the people of color in the back and the white workers in the front if they are going to win rights and respect from the owners.

Throughout all these changes, Rinku Sen traces how Saru from Yale Law and Mamdouh from waiting tables learn a lot and win a lot for people working at restaurants in New York City. In 2007 they were ready to take ROC national based on the two most important lessons that they learned:

“Fighting racism is the key to building an inclusive movement in the restaurant industry. Focusing on race – not exclusively, but explicitly – allowed immigrants of color to reveal their full potential.

An intrepid organization could get a lot done locally, but local conditions were ultimately determined by national and global policies. Local change would always be limited without interventions at global levels. The only hope for local groups was to attach themselves to something bigger.” P. 180.

So ROC United was born and has grown to eight chapters in Chicago, Los Angeles, Maine, Miami, Michigan, New Orleans, New York, and Washington, DC. Today Mamdouh and Saru are Co-Directors of ROC United.

The Accidental American has touched a lot of people. You can add your own video of how you became an “Accident American” at http://www.accidentalamerican.us/my_story/.

Joan Flanagan is the Fundraiser for the Center for New Community. She also recommends Rinku Sen’s book “Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy” in Kim Klein’s Chardon Press Series from Jossey-Bass.
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