Conversations I shouldn’t be having

On November 9, 2016, the day after Donald J. Trump was elected to become the 45th President of the United States of America, I had to have some difficult conversations with the refugee and immigrant teenagers whom I teach at Apollo High School in St. Cloud, Minnesota. I was, frankly, in a state of disbelief that a person who ridicules the disabled, women, immigrants, refugees, Latinos, Mexicans, etc. had just been elected. I was reeling, angry, and just plain sad. But I am a white, Christian, middle class, middle-aged woman, and what, pray tell, did I have to fear? While there is no doubt that I will be impacted by the Trump administration’s policies, I believe that the students in my midst shall be affected much more forcefully than I.

My students are immigrants and refugees by necessity, not by choice. They are here because circumstances such as war, trauma, turmoil, and the stark reality of living their entire lives within the walls of Dadaab and Kakuma Refugee Camps in Kenya (Google them for a dose of reality) or those of Hargeisa in Somaliland and others in Ethiopia brought them here after years of waiting. Sometimes families have waited five, ten, fifteen years to be resettled.

I think it is imperative for people to understand that refugees do not have a choice as to where they will be resettled in the U.S. or around the world. They go through years of waiting to be chosen for resettlement. Then once they are thoroughly vetted over the course of two years or more by myriad international and United States governmental agencies (if they are coming to the States), they are placed according to which states or countries have available space and then told where they will be going. As a result, my students have landed in St. Cloud, Minnesota, because particular agencies such as Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services have had space and resources to place them here. Within three years, refugee families have to pay the government back for the monies that they have been lent for airfare and fees from Africa or elsewhere.

But I digress. The election was over. I had the “Day After Blues”. How to respond to my students, to reassure them? Just two days prior, on November 7, Trump had been in Minnesota and proclaimed that the state had seen problems as a result of poor vetting, “with large numbers of Somali refugees coming into [the] state without your knowledge, without your support or approval, and with some of them then joining ISIS and spreading their extremist views all over our country and all over the world.” Ouch. Lies regarding the vetting, but some truth to the extremist piece although the spread of extremism within Minnesota is rare. Fresh from hearing Trump’s diatribe against Somali Muslims on the news, my students were worried on November 9. They came in during first period that morning with a rash of valid, heartfelt concerns and questions.

“Mrs. Marolf, I heard that Donald Trump was going to come to my apartment building and knock on every refugee door and make us leave and go back to Africa.”

“I heard that Donald Trump said that Somali students can’t go to school here in Minnesota anymore. Is that true?”

“Is he going to make us leave?”

“Is he going to take away our medical insurance?”

“I heard he is going to take away our food stamps. Will he do that?”

“Is he going to make us leave? Is he going to make us leave?”

“He doesn’t want us here. I’m going back to Ethiopia. Why would I want to stay when he doesn’t respect us as Muslims and he doesn’t believe in our values?”

I listened to each question and responded to the best of my ability with words of truth:

“No, he is not going to come and knock on your apartment door and send you back to Africa. You are safe here. You have papers from the U.S. government that say that you are safe, that you are legal, that you have refugee status and can stay.”

“You can come to school…today, and every day ahead. We have talked about civil rights. You have the right to a free education in America at a public school. As President, he cannot take away your rights.”

“He may say he doesn’t want you here, or you may feel that way. I respect your feelings. I do not understand them the way you do, because I am not you and I am not from Africa or Iraq and I am not a refugee. But I do know that I want you here. I want you to be safe and to go to school and to have a good life and the opportunities that you deserve. There are millions of other American citizens who believe as I do.”

“I want you to know you are safe. If you don’t feel safe, or if you hear something that you don’t know is true, come and see me and we can discuss it.”

“Just because a person says something does not make it right or true. Even if he just got elected to be our President.”

Long conversation ensued about rumors, truth, dignity, human rights, religious freedom, and refugee rights. Civics Lessons 101.
I should not have to be having these conversations with children who are victims of trauma, malnutrition, war, poverty, and injustice. It is painful, but it is the reality of this new political era. I will continue to have these difficult conversations, and will try to help my students navigate the days ahead as I work hard to help them see that they are part of one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for ALL.

I want to say “Amen!” at the end of my fervent recitation of The Pledge of Allegiance at school these days. My prayers are many, and I shall continue to pray, against so many odds, for our nation (though it feels like it is being torn apart at every seam) to indeed be indivisible.