An American diplomat on her first foreign posting surprised young people at a gathering in London on May 8 by painting a picture of the United States that differed dramatically from views held in many countries.
Sharlina Hussain-Morgan, the Assistant Cultural Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in London, gave a talk called "A Look Inside America's Melting Pot" to two dozen people gathered in a private home.
"We're all Americans, but we love to describe our multiple identities," she said. "It makes up who I am as an American ... A person will say, for instance, 'I'm Jewish-Muslim-Christian' and then add a bunch of other identities" from ancestral homelands, she said. "People in the U.S. feel happy and proud about their multiple identities."
Sharlina, a New Yorker, has her own "melting-pot" story. Her parents emigrated years ago to the United States from Bangladesh. She explained to participants at the Project Mosaic roundtable discussion that her hands and feet were covered with intricate designs in henna dye because, two days earlier, she and her husband had been host to 180 people at their wedding celebration in New York. Drawing with henna on the bride's hands and feet made up part of the traditional wedding festivities.
"When we got married a year ago, there was no time for the big family celebration because my assignment in London was starting," she said. "It was fun last week on Long Island to bring my family and my husband's family together for the first time - and to watch them dance. It was great." Sharlina is Muslim. Her husband is African-American, from a Baptist (Christian) family.
She describes her work in the UK as "unpacking America" by creating greater understanding about the people, culture and government of the United States. Much of Sharlina's work involves engagement with young Britons, including clearing up common misconceptions about America.
This kind of work has been especially important since 9/11, she said.
The attacks that claimed nearly 3,000 lives on September 11, 2001 in New York, Washington, DC and Pennsylvania came as a devastating shock to people in the United States, a country in which friendliness towards strangers is a strong tradition. "People simply could not comprehend why anyone would hate Americans," she said. She added that, moving forward, the creation of greater understanding between Americans and non-Americans would require focus, time and effort by people in many countries.
The gathering on May 8 brought together students and people from business, the artistic world, the nonprofit sector and local government. Nationalities of participants included British, Somali, Italian, Swedish and American. Many of the young people who attended were first-generation Britons, of parents from Africa, South Asia or the Middle East.
"It's been surprising to me in the UK, when I introduce myself as American or Bangladeshi-American, to hear a person say 'I'm Bangladeshi' and then to find out that he or she was born in the UK and has spent little or no time in Bangladesh," she said. "The situation is different in the U.S. because people from an immigrant background not only are American - they consider themselves American."
Asked by one young person to identify the "USP" (Unique Selling Proposition) of the United States, Sharlina said it was the entrepreneurial spirit. "It's a country with a lot of entrepreneurial energy. The degree of creativity and innovation that people bring to the workplace helps to define their success," she said.
In 2013 Sharlina and her husband to Cairo, as her next assignment is at the U.S. Embassy there. Prior to entering the Foreign Service, during her university years, she spent time in Egypt and Turkey. Sharlina has a Bachelors degree in Political Science from MIT and a Masters degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
During her talk, she was asked about ways to overcome prejudice. She said prejudice existed in all countries. This included Islamophobia in the United States. She said the best way to counter prejudice was to spread knowledge, especially through education, and to challenge ignorance. "It's sad to say, but prejudice is found in many places. When I spent time in Egypt (while a university student), sometimes a person would learn that I was Muslim and say 'Alhamdulillah' ('Praise to God!') - and then start saying horrible things about Jews and Christians," she said.
Sharlina said many misconceptions about people from a different country or background resulted simply from a lack of contact. She laughed when she described her surprise, as a university student arriving in Turkey, to discover that not everyone spoke English. "I had travelled to Bangladesh regularly since I was a child, but it had never occurred to me that so many Bangladeshis spoke English because it had been a British colony!" she said. During her time in Turkey, she learned Turkish.
Sharlina urged young participants at the gathering to help build bridges between people from different ethnicities and countries, including between Americans and non-Americans. She said sports was one powerful way to do this, something she had seen in preparations for the Olympics in London this year.
She said developing diversity in the workplace was positive and important, including in the diplomatic corps. "When I travel back to the U.S., I encourage young people from ethnic and religious minorities, including Muslims, to go into the Foreign Service," she said. "It's a wonderful way to help bring about change." Sharlina said it was a challenge, however, to persuade young Muslim Americans to become diplomats since many of the parents coming from South Asia considered law, medicine and engineering as the only professions guaranteeing an acceptable level of financial security.
Sharlina was asked how to help Americans get better connected with the rest of the world, and vice versa, given the fact that the U.S. economy, as the world's largest, and the geography, with an ocean to the east and to the west of the North American continent, prompted many U.S. nationals to spend their entire working lives and all their holidays in the home country.
She said the number of young Americans travelling outside the United States had increased significantly, compared to earlier generations, and this was a very encouraging trend. Sharlina said it was important to look for opportunities, regardless of one's nationality, to bridge the knowledge gap between Americans and non-Americans.