The names of the children have been omitted for their protection.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order on January 27, 2017, calling for significant and immediate changes to the United States’ immigration policy. The order resulted in confusion and panic around the nation, with protesters gathering in airports across the United States. The executive order includes an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees entering the United States, as well as a 90-day ban of citizens of six other predominantly Muslim countries: Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, and Libya. All refugees are banned for 120 days. As of February 7, 2017, the ban is blocked by a Washington state federal judge, and appeals to reinstate it have been unsuccessful. At first, the status of green card holders and dual citizens was unclear, and many were detained in airports. They are now being allowed into the US but will be subject to additional security screening.
Young students from these countries, and many more, can be found in the greater Richmond area. Some have found a safe haven at Tuckahoe YMCA’s STAR program this year, an after-school tutoring and mentoring program for refugee and immigrant students at Quioccasin Middle School. Three days a week, Collegiate juniors and seniors volunteer their time at Quioccasin to tutor and play outside with the students. Lyra Bartell, the STAR program coordinator, is passionate about the program because “refugee and immigrant youth in our community lack the resources and support they need to succeed academically. ” She added, “because of the nature of jobs available to folks who are just learning English, their parents are usually working long hours, and many of the kids spend a lot of time alone outside of school or looking after their siblings. I’m working to make the STAR program a safe, supportive community for the kids to spend time with other youth in similar situations.” The program provides an environment of understanding for the students, and a few of them shared their feelings about the election and Trump’s first days in office.
The day after the election in November, there was a panicked atmosphere at the program. The kids expressed concerns to me and other volunteers that they would have to return to their home countries. This same sense of panic resurfaced following the news of the new restrictions regarding those seven countries, many of which are represented in the program.
H, a 12-year-old student who came to the United States from India just six months ago, has been vocal about her concerns. She expressed that she believes Trump is “unfair” in thinking that immigrants and refugees are “breaking this country.” H hopes to one day become an actress or a business owner. She is always eager to work with the tutors on her homework.
S, also 12, fled from her home in Afghanistan with her family just one year ago. She came to the United States knowing no English and is now one of the most talkative students in the program. She has confided her feelings and fears about Trump’s presidency throughout the year and was eager to talk about an issue she feels so strongly about. She mostly feels that she and other refugees are misunderstood, explaining that “we came to this country because we wanted opportunity. I came here to have a better life.” When asked why her family left Afghanistan, S explained that “girls cannot study” and are persecuted. She added that students at her brother’s school were subjected to beatings, to the point where her brother “couldn’t walk.” S was adamant about one thing: she is in the United States to stay. “I don’t want to go back to my country. I love the United States. I think it is the best country in the whole world.” When the idea was presented to her by Bartell to call her congressmen and representatives, S was eager to share her opinions with authorities. She called the offices of Virginia’s U.S. Congressmen David Brat and Bobby Scott and explained why she, as a refugee, deserves to live in the United States. Bartell explains that she introduced the students to calling their representatives because she “wanted them to feel that they had agency and that their voices matter in the current political climate that has left most of them feeling helpless. They were extremely upset over [recent executive orders], and were asking me if there was anything they could do, so I taught them how to call their representatives.”
M was born in Yemen, one of the seven countries on Trump’s executive order list. She is 13 years old and moved to the United States just over a year ago. Had she tried to come just thirteen months later, she and her family would have been denied entry. M’s father is still overseas and “can’t come back to the United States.” according to M. Upon announcement of the new restrictions, M was “about to cry.”
L, a 14-year-old eighth grader at Quioccasin, moved from Egypt to the United States in 2012. After talking with L, I gained a new level of understanding about the young refugee perspective on the refugee crisis. Her parents are from Sudan, another one of the “banned,” predominantly Muslim countries. She empathized with the refugees no longer allowed to come to the United States. “[The executive order] is unfair because a lot of [refugees] don’t have homes and now they don’t have that opportunity,” L explained. L also disputed the Trump administration’s logic, remembering there are very few examples of individuals from those seven countries committing terrorist acts in the US. “One person does something wrong, and we blame the entire religion,” L said. “A lot of other religions do wrong, but we don’t blame them.” With that said, L assured me that she is “wishing for him to have a great presidency.”
After hearing from this diverse group, their underlying message was clear: their families came to the United States in search of a better life, and they hope others will be able to have the same opportunity they did in the future. Collegiate student Olivia Brown (‘17), a STAR volunteer, says that one thing she’s learned from the program this year is that “at the end of the day, the kids at STAR are just normal middle school kids, and they want to be treated that way.” She added, “The Quiocassin Middle School students have taught me that differences in race, culture, or language don’t matter in soccer or Minecraft, and they shouldn’t matter when it comes to defining what it means to be an American citizen.” The Richmond Times Dispatch recently chronicled the first Syrian family to arrive in Richmond, and similar stories are being told around the country. These stories highlight the rarity and challenges of resettling and aiding this vulnerable population.