Gathered Monday in the library of the school that has welcomed them, a group of teenagers whose families fled persecution and war in their native countries decried Trump administration actions they say betray American values they hold dear.
The students at Denver’s South High School joined top district officials to share with the media their experiences and their opinions on Trump’s executive order that banned citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries and temporarily suspended the U.S. refugee program.
“A lot of my Somali friends, their siblings are overseas and they can’t come and reunite with their family, all because of one order,” said Sadia Mohammed, an 18-year-old senior whose parents are from Somalia and who came to the U.S. as a refugee in 2009. “It’s breaking up families.”
The event at South also spotlighted Denver Public Schools’ stepped-up efforts to educate refugee and other students whose schooling has been interrupted, in some cases because they spent time in refugee camps where educational opportunities were limited.
South High is home to one of six DPS “newcomer centers.”
The model, which the district adopted several years ago and has continually expanded, calls for students to spend a semester or two in a self-contained newcomer classroom and then transition to a more mainstream program for English language learners.
The centers also foster a diversity that the students in the library — which included American-born teens along with immigrants and refugees from countries such as Ethiopia and Eritrea — said they prize.
“Even if you are a minority student or a student who’s being targeted by politicians or told you don’t have a right to be here, we want you here at South,” said senior Cherokee Ronolo-Valdez, who was born and raised in Denver. “We want you to feel supported. We’re all human.”
Many of the students said they feel Trump’s order sends the opposite message.
“I want everybody to be given the same opportunity that I’ve been given, and that’s why this is very upsetting,” said Sara Gebretsadik, who came to the United States from Ethiopia about seven years ago. “Everybody deserves the opportunity to shine.”
Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg also spoke out against the Trump order, saying he hoped the ban would be “lifted immediately.” He promised DPS would continue to welcome refugee students, who he said make its schools stronger and richer.
DPS doesn’t track the number of refugee students in the 92,000-student district. State statistics show that 1,960 refugees were resettled in Colorado in 2016.
The state was expected to resettle nearly 2,200 this fiscal year but now expects the number will be fewer than half that, said Alicia Caldwell of the Colorado Department of Human Services.
In fact, she said, Colorado had expected 55 families, including some from the banned countries of Syria, Somalia and Iraq, to arrive in the next few days.
South High senior Zahra Abdulameer’s family came to Colorado in 2009, when the 17-year-old was in fourth grade. Originally from Iraq, the family had been living in Turkey, where Abdulameer had stopped going to school for a year because her parents deemed it unsafe.
“After we came here, we got all the educational opportunities we were looking for and the safety, too,” said Abdulameer, who has since become a citizen. “It was really welcoming.”
Though none of her family members in Iraq are planning to come to the U.S., she worries about others. The gathering in the South library was heartening, she said.
“Before coming to this gathering, I was like, ‘We’re just going to be speaking and we’re not going to go and make a change,’” she said. But as more of her peers spoke, her opinion changed. “Sitting here, hearing everybody talk, it’s like maybe our voices can be really powerful.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.