In this time of great distress, I invite you to reflect upon the power each of us holds as an individual to live the values we desire to see displayed on the political stage of this nation. No president can control our ability to speak with and learn from our neighbors; no president can keep us from showing our love and leading with hope in our communities. Because whatever he thinks divides us, we think unites us.
This year, New Haven has accepted 80 percent of Connecticut’s new refugee population — 264 people in just the last nine months. Most of these students are from Arab and South Asian nations. This number will only face upward pressure as the conflict in Syria intensifies, much to our horror.
Unfortunately, these resettlement rates are not met with equal educational or community support. Students receive inadequate instruction and families are isolated from the local New Haven population. While some efforts exist to help families individually, little is done to educate the New Haven community about the changing demographics of their city nor to create ties between refugees and local residents. This is concerning from both a humanitarian and a security standpoint, as isolation is unwelcoming at best and radicalizing at worst.
Our Students of Salaam ambassadors — who work with small groups of refugees in schools, with families in homes and with the New Haven community at large — note these trends. One ambassador who works with a newly arrived Syrian seventh grader notes: “Ahmad sits at school all day, communicating with no one and learning nothing. When I am there once a week is the only time he is able to communicate.” One of our in-home ambassadors was surprised when the mother of the family said she would “like to go back to Syria” because of how alone her family feels in New Haven. Her son joked that a Trump presidency might allow them to finally return home.
Of course, returning home is almost always not a choice for these individuals. Their best chance at returning home is making a home out of New Haven, an endeavor that might prove impossible if their children cannot learn and their local neighbors are not comfortable with reaching out. A further obstacle to making America home is the fear that accompanies the early days of the Trump presidency. The morning after Trump’s election, Wazhma, an 11-year-old sixth grader from Pakistan who has been living in the U.S. for three years, wrote our tutor a letter. “When I was back in Pakistan,” she writes, “my mom always told me be nice, respectful, don’t be mean. But now I think I should say that to Donald Trump.”
When asked “What does New Haven mean to you?” Wazhma expresses conflicting emotions that most 11-year-old Americans will never experience in an existentially threatening way. “I feel sad because of Donald Trump, and I feel angry,” Wazhma begins. “I was here about three years, and I love America.” Wazhma has begun the difficult process of physically, mentally and emotionally reimagining the meaning of home.
But the recent presidential election and its profusion of hate have confused Wazhma’s love for America. “I feel so sad and scary because if Donald Trump says go back to your country I am scared there will be a war!” She says. While her classroom peers slip on Trump socks or snuggle with Donald Ducks, Wazhma views the presidency with grave concern. Despite this, her compassion is not lost. “I think Donald Trump has feelings because he is a person too,” she concludes.
From Wazhma’s story, we learn that while New Haven may be a place she loves, it is not always a place that loves her back. Now more than ever, we need to heal ourselves and our neighbors, to bring communities together and to educate all individuals to reduce extremism and the silent malignancy of fear. Slowly but surely, we work with students, teachers, parents and friends to bring minds together from miles apart. We cannot expect to see the values and truths we believe in bloom if we do not nurture them both in times of plenty and in times of drought.
Stella Shannon is a junior in Berkeley College. She is the founding Co-President of Students for Salaam, which seeks to connect local communities with incoming refugees. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .