Local teens lobby for refugee rights

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A group of local teens traveled to Washington, D.C., a week after the election to lobby for refugees’ rights as part of Amnesty International. Courtesy photo A group of local teens traveled to Washington, D.C., a week after the election to lobby for refugees’ rights as part of Amnesty International. Courtesy photo

Elizabeth Valtierra was nervous.

Like many across the nation, the Charlottesville High School senior spent election night with her family, gathered around a television in the living room. As the earliest states were called for Donald Trump, her family made jokes and tried to laugh it off. They thought Hillary Clinton would pull ahead, as the polls had predicted—she had to. But as the night wore on and state after state went to Trump, the mood grew somber.

“When they announced the president-elect, we were shocked, disappointed,” Valtierra says. “We’re Mexican. We look Mexican. We were scared we might encounter people who might be bold.”

It didn’t take long for Valtierra’s fear to materialize. On November 11, just a few days after the election, she went to the McDonald’s on Pantops with her mother and younger siblings and cousins. It was a Friday, and the family was enjoying time together after a tense week.

Elizabeth Valtierra. Photo by Jackson Smith
Elizabeth Valtierra. Photo by Jackson Smith

The conversation turned to politics, as every conversation in the aftermath of the election seemed to. Valtierra’s young cousins began badmouthing Trump, repeating things they had heard adults say at home. Suddenly, Valtierra and her mother became aware that a nearby group of men was listening.

The women grew tense as the men fanned out, blocking each exit to the restaurant while staring the family down. One man stood directly behind the family’s table, which was out of sight of the restaurant’s employees. Afraid to leave or separate, the two women called Valtierra’s father to pick them up.

“We were pretty shocked,” Valtierra says. “Charlottesville is generally a safe city. You don’t encounter many racist people or intimidating people.” After the incident, her mother bought her pepper spray.

Atiqullah Mohammed Nasim went to sleep before the election results were announced. He hoped he would awake to find that the country had elected Clinton, but instead he woke to a text from a friend at 3am: “Bro, Trump won.”

Nasim’s father fled the war in Afghanistan in 2009. It took two long years for the rest of the family to join him in the United States, and longer still to adjust to life in a new country. Nasim’s schooling was interrupted by the war, and he arrived in the U.S. unable to speak English. In the beginning, he remembers morning bus rides to Charlottesville High School, when some students would mock his name. Though he never felt his safety was threatened, the taunts were emotionally taxing.

“If you can’t speak the language, how are you going to go and complain?” says Nasim, who graduated from CHS in 2016 and is now a student at Piedmont Virginia Community College. “I had friends who would say, ‘What can we do? This isn’t our country. We have to go with the flow until we know the language.’ Well, we are also part of this country now.”

Nasim found the suggestion of a Muslim registry, which first surfaced as a comment by a member of the president-elect’s transition team, alarming. He finds solace in the Quran’s teachings on nonviolence and finds a certain irony in threats to investigate mosques.

“The beauty of our religion is that we welcome people inside,” says Nasim. “We are not making bombs—we’re praying, and when we pray, we are all one race. Short, tall, disabled, all races—we are together.”

Atiqullah Mohammed Nasim. Photo by Eze Amos
Atiqullah Mohammed Nasim. Photo by Eze Amos

Nasim says he is more concerned than ever about how Trump’s comments toward women could affect his sisters, who are 6 and 8 years old. “It’s going to be challenging for [my sisters] to wear hijab,” he says. Like Valtierra, he worries that his sisters will face harassment from Trump supporters emboldened by their win.

Valtierra and Nasim are linked not only by their experiences, but through youth lobbying efforts after the election, led locally by Kibiriti Majuto, a relentlessly energetic senior at Charlottesville High School whose family arrived in the U.S. from the Democratic Republic of the Congo as refugees in 2011. In the weeks leading up to the election, Majuto devoted several hours to phone banking for the Clinton campaign.

“I was in grief,” Majuto says of the election result. “I wanted to turn back time; I could not believe it.” Although Majuto is 18, he will not be able to vote until he acquires citizenship in two years. Like Nasim, Majuto and his family are Muslim.

week after the election, Majuto, Valtierra, Nasim and a few other students boarded a northbound Amtrak to Washington, D.C., where they joined forces with high school and college students from up and down the East Coast. On behalf of Amnesty International, they urged legislators to enact laws that would prevent discrimination against refugees. Through the years, bills supporting refugees have surfaced, gained support, failed to pass and surfaced again; on any given day, lobbyists from the International Rescue Committee and similar groups are on Capitol Hill tracking legislation concerning refugees.

Majuto, who is president of the Amnesty International Club at CHS, had first heard of the trip during a webinar for the group’s Virginia coordinators and members. He connected with Sam Steed, a William & Mary student currently serving as a legislative coordinator for Amnesty International, and asked if he could bring a group of students from Charlottesville along.

Valtierra says that Majuto didn’t ask her to come, per se. “He just told me, ‘Hey, you’re going to come with me,’” she says. “I wasn’t really sure what I was getting myself into.” Nasim heard about the trip through another friend and was intrigued by the possibility of meeting Senator Bernie Sanders. (They did not end up meeting the senator.)

After the election, Nasim felt defeated and questioned whether he would follow through with the trip, but he had already booked his ticket. “Kibiriti is very passionate,” says Nasim, whose worldview skews toward pragmatism. He says that Majuto believes one person can change the world, but “if Gandhi was by himself, he would have ended up dying.”

As the group entered the Capitol Building, Valtierra’s heart pounded. The Charlottesville students were among the youngest people in attendance; other campus Amnesty International groups had arrived from the University of Mary Washington, University of Maryland and campuses as far away as Massachusetts.

The Charlottesville students were paired with students from Washington and Lee University, and Majuto, Valtierra and Nasim instantly connected with the older activists. Energized by a common passion for human rights, they met with a series of legislators, at times sharing personal stories to illuminate their message.

Of the legislators the group met with, most were receptive and friendly. However, all three students were quick to recall one woman in particular. Majuto had shared stories about his experiences as a refugee in South Africa when the conversation began to unravel.

“Some of the stories were very horrible and graphic,” Valtierra says. “He [Majuto] was beat up to the point where he had to be at the hospital for three days. The woman had the nerve to say, ‘Are you sure?’”

Prior to the trip, the students had prepared by studying materials Amnesty International provided. “They taught me to be calm,” Nasim says. “We learned how to talk to people [while] lobbying and how to control our emotions.”

Both Nasim and Valtierra also kept Michelle Obama’s advice from the Democratic National Convention in mind: “When they go low, we go high.”

Over the course of the day, Majuto noticed patterns at the Capitol Building. He saw far more men than women, and also noticed that many of the people of color were working food service or janitorial jobs.

But, ultimately, Majuto came away troubled by the legislators’ notion of compromise. Throughout the day, he heard variations of a certain phrase—that two sides should agree to disagree and respect one another.

“What do they do when they disagree based on ideology?” asks Majuto. “It left me wondering where other party members or constituents go from here.”

Kibiriti Majuto. Photo by Jackson Smith
Kibiriti Majuto. Photo by Jackson Smith

On the day after the presidential election, neither Valtierra nor Majuto felt up to attending school in the morning. When they arrived at CHS in time for their afternoon classes, the campus was quiet. In Charlottesville, 80 percent of voters cast ballots for Clinton. CHS Principal Dr. Eric Irizarry characterized the mood at the school as shocked and disappointed, though he points out that the CHS community also includes students and staff who were pleased by the outcome.

Near the end of the school day, guidance counselors sent a note to all faculty and students. “On a day when many in our school are feeling a bit lost, perhaps wondering what comes next and how we’re going to respond, your counselors, your teachers, your administrators, and all the adults at Charlottesville High School who are about you want you to know something,” the note said. “You are not alone. Whatever comes next, we’ll face it together and we’ll do so with respect, mutual appreciation, and kindness.” The note went on to acknowledge CHS’ diversity and encourage students to talk to guidance counselors.

Valtierra found the note comforting. “I felt like, ‘Yeah! That’s my school,’” she says. Irizarry reports that an above-average number of students sought out counselors in the weeks following the election.

And as teachers guided classroom discussions, a student response to the election began to take shape. In a class called Becoming Global Citizens, Valtierra and Majuto helped design a project with the goal of creating a message to unify the CHS community. While searching online for examples to build from, Majuto came across a project from a school in Alexandria that featured posters that presented different identities. Soon, they got to work creating their own posters acknowledging differences represented by CHS students. Each poster began with the phrase “We are” followed by a broad range of identities.

The decision to use “we” rather than “I” came in reaction to the class’s observation that students unintentionally tend to segregate themselves—Latino students sitting together at lunch, or white students clustering together. There are more than 400 students in CHS’ English as a Second Language program, and they collectively represent 34 different languages, including Spanish, Nepali, Arabic and Swahili, the top four languages spoken.

“We are diverse, and we are proud of it,” Valtierra says. “Our identities are on the same level.”

Irizarry found the project to be constructive. “My sense is that the poster campaign went a long way towards shifting the mood of the school,” he says. “Though individually we may be white, black, immigrant, Christian, Muslim, disabled or more, we are all unified, together, proud, American, Black Knights.”

The "We are" sign project at Charlottesville High School. Courtesy photo

The response was in keeping with a core value CHS tries to instill in its students: That getting involved in the community and driving positive change are worthy goals. In a statement to C-VILLE, a spokesperson for Charlottesville City Schools clarified that although CHS does not encourage students toward any particular political affiliation or political goals, teachers and administrators hope to give students the tools to “develop the research, critical thinking, problem-solving and rhetorical skills to propose and advocate for improvements in our world.”

Beyond CHS, the larger Charlottesville community has shown support for refugees like Majuto, Nasim and their families. After the election, the International Rescue Committee received a flood of donations and volunteer applications. Seventy first-time applicants completed volunteer forms online in the first three weeks after the election, compared with 25 applications in October.

In addition to new volunteer applications, the IRC has seen an uptick in donations. Often, the amounts are small—between $10 and $25—but recently the surge in donations came ahead of the IRC’s annual appeal letter.

IRC Executive Director Harriet Kuhr says the outpouring of support has been remarkable. “We’ve been seeing it here, but it’s been happening in other cities as well,” she says. The total number of volunteers is already greater than the number of newly resettled refugees in Charlottesville.

Until the Trump administration is in place, the IRC can only watch and wait with the rest of the country. “We’ve been reassuring people that they’re here legally and they have protections,” Kuhr says. “They just need to do everything to keep themselves in legal status and do all the things they’re supposed to do with immigration. Anyone who is here on legal status has rights.”

Majuto, Valtierra and Nasim all say the trip to D.C. was energizing. They acknowledge that the movement to persuade people across the United States to embrace refugees and immigrants must operate in a time frame longer than a single election cycle or a president’s term.

Valtierra says the trip left her with a tangle of emotions, from exhilaration to discouragement to anger. “This was a life-changing experience,” she says. “I want to work behind the scenes and get involved.”

At one point during the day in Washington, Nasim said to Majuto, “‘Dude, imagine our dads seeing us [here]. They would be so proud of us.’”

Nasim, who is completing his general education courses at PVCC, plans to pursue a career in law. He hopes to follow in the footsteps of his father, who worked in the government in Afghanistan, and his uncle, a general in the Afghan National Army. After spending a day with students from Washington and Lee, he has his eye on the school as a possible place to transfer to pursue a juris doctor degree. Overall, he hopes to expand other people’s notion of what a refugee can achieve.

“I have to work hard, study more,” Nasim says. “My voice does matter.”

As for Majuto, the election result failed to shake his enthusiasm for analyzing politics. In addition to his classes and extracurricular activities, Majuto, who is CHS’ senior class president, has continued to devour post-election news from The Nation, MSNBC, NPR, Blavity and more. Although he doesn’t have any single political hero, he is enamored with the provocative ideas of political activists ranging from Karl Marx to Nelson Mandela.

“How am I going to deal with this when I one day maybe run for Congress?” asks Majuto. “How are we as a nation going to compromise for the common good?”

Even if Majuto doesn’t run for office, he plans to seek ways to create positive change. He’s troubled by the state of the American education system in particular. “The death of any superpower is the ignorance of the people if they aren’t well educated,” he says. “That’s what I worry about.” Women’s rights and improving the lives of the incarcerated as they re-enter society—particularly securing them the right to vote—are also issues frequently on his mind.

Majuto’s enthusiasm is infectious, his optimism seemingly unshakable. He thinks of elected officials as true public servants who should have to answer to the will of the people. When it comes to the president-elect, Majuto urges everyone to keep one thing in mind: “He works for us,” Majuto says. “We don’t work for him.”

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