Speech and Debate

Halfway through sixth grade, my family moved from Roselle, a diverse working-class neighborhood, to Freehold, New Jersey, an upper-middle class predominantly white living. Thus began the year of silence.

Out of protest, sadness, depression, and puberty I vowed to my parents that I would never ever speak to them again. I later apologized for it, as it was said out of frustration more than anything, but the behavior remained. I wouldn’t speak over a certain volume. I wouldn’t make eye contact when I spoke. I wouldn’t speak unless addressed. My teachers called it selective mutism; my parents called it stubborn; and now they call it ironic. I didn’t have the words to call it anything. I didn’t know that I’d never be more grateful. If Roselle stayed home, I would have never found speech.

Five years later, high school theatre didn’t work out so I followed my best friend to the speech and debate room for the first meeting of the year. According to Mr. Drummond, my first ever coach, there were three fundamental tracks to the art of speech: limited preparation (LP), public address (PA), & interpretation events (IE). Limited preparation events deal with extemporaneous and impromptu speaking. Public address events deal with researching, writing, memorizing and performing informative, communicative, humorous, and persuasive speeches. Interpretation events deal with dramatic and humorous acting events. They showed all three at the Welcome Back Showcase. The president of the team performed a poetry interpretation program, and the power he exuded was enviable. Thirty people in one room stopped and listened in complete silence with full attention for ten minutes to one man. He held the entire room hostage. I had never seen that before. At fourteen years old, I thought, to be a part of a distinguished league of high school speakers, leaders, and influencers (which included Josh Gad, Zac Efron, Oprah, Brad Pitt, Kal Penn, and even more) would have been an honor—one I wasn’t sure I deserved, so ninth grade was a silent year regardless.

I started to compete more regularly in forensics (also known as speech, debate, 4n6, often confused with football or dead bodies) in the tenth grade, doing humorous interpretation and improvisational acting. Improvisational acting was the event that made me. Improv taught me everything about interpretation, everything about acting, everything about self-determination, everything about speaking as a cognitive process and everything about heart. The first time I finaled at a tournament I brought home a tiny fifth-place motorcycle trophy for something I never thought I could do, which was make people laugh with the sound of my voice, and I cried.

Soft voices never really harden, they just get heard.

I got serious about speech after that. I spent hours in the library reading books, suggesting them to all of the novices who had trouble finding literature to perform for competition. The next year, I took on the challenge of teaching the novices the rules and conventions of speech, which meant I had to learn them. Begging my parents to attend the George Mason Institute of Forensics (GMIF), a summer camp for speech kids taught by collegiate performers, definitely turned the tide. I studied and watched the final rounds of the National Tournament every year in someone’s New Jersey basement. Me and my friends who also were serious studied elocution, differing philosophies of acting, the principles of minstrelsy & oratorical education. We held house practices in people’s basements. We practiced monologues over and over for each other, recorded them for ourselves and played them back. We choreographed ourselves. We recorded ourselves. We read each and every ballot after each tournament in a McDonald’s booth. I bought two obnoxiously bright green speech suits and wore them with pride. I read literature, considered the themes I wanted to pick out of the author’s words and what method of interpretation I could take every week. Something that would effectively break walls but not make too many waves. I spent countless nights memorizing and perfecting and trying to get better.

One day, my voice just crystallized in front of me and I realized that the silence was over. No one could ever get me to shut up now. Not even myself. Even if I wanted to. My coach once told me, if you want to be able to change the way you speak, you have to change the way you breathe. Well at point, I’d went from choking to gasping. That’s where the art comes in. The body’s oral system works hard for those ten minutes. The more you are able to control your nose, your mouth, your lungs, your brain…the more you are able to become an extension of yourself.

My first dramatic interpretation (DI) in speech was of the book Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals my senior year of high school. Performing the words of that piece allowed me to fall in love with prose again. Warriors Don’t Cry is a compilation of Beals’ high school diary, a sixteen-year-old girl who was part of the Little Rock Nine in Arkansas surrounding the civil rights fight for desegregation. It told the story of a girl trying to make it to seventeen. Approaching my senior year as one of the few Haitian-Americans in a predominantly white school and neighborhood, I was just trying to get to seventeen too. Beals spends pages and pages going through her tumultuous year in Little Rock, holding no parts of herself and the experiences of her classmates back. The themes of hopelessness and the titular advice got me through my senior year of high school. I only semifinaled at our district tournament, meaning I never qualified for high school nationals. But according to Melba, warriors didn’t cry. In the face of injustice, the warrior spirit is flexible. The strength to leave home, go to George Mason, and pursue collegiate forensics competitive success would have been lost on me without Melba. She allowed me to exist outside self.

It was the first time I had ever heard it from my own tongue and the love of prose overwhelms me still. And this love now consumes a community. I’ve met some of my closest friends in speech. People meet their soulmates in this activity. Watching someone bleed for you will always leave tiny scars. We, as a community, heal with constant love.

In 2017, me and my duo partner won the American Forensics Association National Individual Events Tournament in Duo Interpretation, performing a programmatic ten-minute piece about modern day lynching in America. We dedicated our performance to lynching victims around the country and the Memorial of Peace and Justice newly erected in Alabama dedicated to these victims as well. We worked hard to include all sorts of groups and accentuate the details of this performance out of respect for ourselves, the literature, and the activity. Using my voice to speak for groups I can adequately represent allows survivors of injustice to tell their stories and live on. Using my body as their vessel has been one of my greatest honors. Here is where I developed the ideology that we are all walking this Earth considering each other, and that the inside matters more than we will ever know but the outside matters because it protects what’s inside. We would not survive without shelter, and the body we inhabit is shelter. Identity is always grabbing at our bones. So we stand up when we can. I do believe that those who are truly and inherently neutral comply to the system and therefore aid systems of oppression. Along this vein, those who do speech are the ones consistently disrupting the status quo.

I’m currently a rising senior at George Mason University, majoring in Public Administration. There are a lot of reasons I love GMU but I can definitely say that I picked and attended my college for speech. Graduating high school, I knew hell was a place without speech. Hell was a world where that could get taken away in an instant. After I graduated high school, our coach and our program stepped down. After my sophomore year in college, our Assistant Director of Forensics stepped down too. This year, after the Director of Forensics for our team left, I don’t think our team knew how to breathe. We were already walking around with open wounds. I have been doing speech and debate for seven years. Seven years ago, I didn’t have something that I knew would never give up on me, ever, as long as I never gave up on it. Speech has been the greatest love of my life. I have never practiced unconditional love before. But after the year our team has had, speech was the world’s most beautiful rose, with dried blood on the thorns, accepting the community’s flaws as necessary evils. Out of love for my art, I have lost sleep, lost job opportunities, lost focus in school, lost money, lost people, and almost lost my mind.

The biggest nightmare about speech is that it is such a diverse and beautiful community full of gorgeous and talented people who spend their weekends laying at the feet of a panel of men. They bare their soul and ask for a fair rank and are given back sexism, racism, classism, and problematic rhetoric time and time again. Microaggressions within the community began to creep on me. Judges and coaches in our community have always held all the power. They are the ones who decide who advances and keeps speaking. They’re usually older, straight, white males. To appease speech traditionalists, droves of us have been made to wear pantyhose, heels, full makeup, forbidden to wear pantsuits, and made to alter our bodies in sometimes unhealthy ways. Coaches have told me to smile wider to appear likeable even at my breaking points. It has made me stretch parts of myself for the amusement of those in power. Some have belittled the stories of survivors, pitted traumas against each other, criticized appearance on ballots more times than I can count, said things that they would never say to anyone’s face about things they would never be able to understand. Being judged on how beautiful I can make struggle, how appealing I can make my suffering, how pretty I can make myself cry for the benefit of an audience whose integrity has shifted has made me question the art of competitive public speaking recently. Highlighting the voices of people who didn’t have this platform was the most rewarding thing, not the trophy. Speech has made me who I am today but I have to recognize the hurt it has caused me as a young black woman. As the next generation of competitors rolls onto a field of so much potential, we have no choice but to leave it better than when we found it.

The speech community allows one to be able to participate in the facilitation of emerging action in this era. Entering a defining period of this world, the importance of voice has never been more compromised. Being part of something that bolsters an era of change, the words behind a revolutionary thing, has been integral to our heart. These messages deserve a home and an eternal story. Leaders, icons, competitors, coaches, and speakers like the ones I have gotten the privilege to compete against do the real dirty work under the grassroots in my head. Speech has provided a place for us as artists, creators, makers, and influences of great societal innovation. Language has always been a gift worth regifting. Every summer, working GMIF turns me into witness as young people grasp the power of voice and advocacy through words, their own and others, as a tool for social innovation and cultural change. The kids there keep something beyond themselves going and they haven’t even opened their mouths yet.

Time to start listening.

top photo courtesy Mernine Ameris

Of Prayers, Protests, and the Body

Just before 7 p.m on July 7, as protesters gathered in Belo Garden Park, in Dallas, Texas, I settled onto a hard wooden seat in the choir stall of St. John’s Abbey Church in Collegeville, Minnesota. As they chanted “enough is enough,” we chanted Psalm 59: “You have been a refuge in the day of my distress.” As they shouted, we sat in silence. As they marched, we bowed.

I imagine everyone was praying, in our own ways. At the church, we prayed in formal style, a monk beseeching God, the congregation responding: “Lord, hear our prayer.” One monk prayed for “Philando Castille and his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds.” I wondered if Philando and Diamond were members of this church. I wondered what had happened, that they merited the prayers of this holy community.

I had no idea that just eighty miles away from where I sat, Philando had been killed by a police officer the night before.

On retreat at a writing workshop, I had not been keeping up with the news. I had no idea that just eighty miles away from where I sat, Philando had been killed by a police officer the night before. No idea that Diamond had somehow had the presence of mind to begin recording the incident even as her boyfriend sat bleeding beside her. I had no idea, but I prayed for Philando and Diamond: “Lord, hear our prayer.”

As peaceful yet angry people continued to gather and chant and march in Denver, I recited the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth.” I received the blessing. I watched the men in black robes file out of their seats, bow to the cross, and head back to their mysterious—though likely mundane—monkish lives.

Later that night, I was drinking and laughing with my friends when the gunshots rang out on the streets of Dallas. Were we talking about church politics, or bad dates, or our cute dogs when the first police officer died? And then the second. And the third. And the fourth. And the fifth.

I slept well that night, but some of my friends at the retreat did not. One woman had a frantic text from a friend whose husband is a police officer in Dallas—whose husband was at the protest and hadn’t come home yet—whose husband, she thankfully learned later, was not physically harmed in the attack. One man from Nigeria received an early morning call from his sister. His family heard about the black man shot in Minnesota and they were worried, because he was a black man—in Minnesota. “Come home to Nigeria where it is safe,” his sister begged him.

It is a strange experience, to be on retreat while the world is falling apart. I did read some news stories, but not deeply. I did skim Facebook, but I didn’t participate in the conversations—not the important ones. Because I wanted my week away.

It is a strange experience, to be on retreat while the world is falling apart. I did read some news stories, but not deeply. I did skim Facebook, but I didn’t participate in the conversations—not the important ones. Because I wanted my week away. Even as people were dying, I wanted to walk by the lake, enjoy the beautiful gardens, gaze at the stained glass windows, listen to the breezes and the birds. And I did all of these things, but with an underlying consciousness that my space, the peace of my moment, was far from the reality of many.

Being on retreat during these events heightened the struggle I feel in the face of any national or international tragedy: What is the appropriate response? Or rather, the good response? How do I acknowledge and honor the pain of strangers? How do I live into the truth that we are all connected to each other? How do I maintain my own sanity and fulfill my ongoing obligations while still giving time and energy to address what is happening in the world?

Being on retreat during these events heightened the struggle I feel in the face of any national or international tragedy: What is the appropriate response? Or rather, the good response?

I care about the hurting people. I care about the injustices in the world. I want to speak and act against racism and homophobia and gun violence. I want to write powerful words and preach prophetic sermons and pray faithful prayers. And I want to watch Netflix. And I need to have supper ready by five because my daughter has gymnastics tonight.

I generally end up doing all of these things. I write and preach and pray and watch Netflix and make dinner. Though I increasingly recognize that not needing to worry about my nineteen-year-old son being shot by police is a luxury parents of black boys don’t have. And my ease makes me uneasy.

I want to speak and act against racism and homophobia and gun violence. I want to write powerful words and preach prophetic sermons and pray faithful prayers. And I want to watch Netflix.

Paul, the New Testament missionary/writer, and I have something of a love/hate relationship. One of his concepts I love is the metaphor of church as a body. “The body is not made up of one part but of many . . . If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?” (1 Corinthians 12:14,17) This metaphor helps sustain me when I struggle with what to do, when I feel guilty that I’m not doing enough.

Paul specifically applies this metaphor to the church, but I consider its application to community more broadly. We are a body with each other—across the country and around the world. This may sound a little cheesy, and if you’re of a certain age you might have an image of swaying pop stars singing “We are the world” and be tempted to roll your eyes.

Go ahead and get the eye rolling out of your system. Then consider the implications of the metaphor. Being a body means that we are connected—head to toe connected. If you stub your toe, the message courses along your nerves all the way up to your brain. If you injure an eye, it makes your hands and arms less precise because it messes with your depth perception. An inner ear infection can make you tip over. . . . You get the idea. All connected.

Being a body means that we are connected—head to toe connected. If you stub your toe, the message courses along your nerves all the way up to your brain.

At a basic level, this connection means that what is harmful to some is, ultimately, harmful to all. As Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When we say, “Black lives matter,” it is not a denial that other lives also matter. It is a claim that black lives are not being properly valued; and in failing to value black lives, we harm the quality of life for everyone. I do not want to live in a society where anyone of any race gets abused or shot by police for having a toy gun or reaching for his ID or asking to see a search warrant or being a little grumpy when they get pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. As Paul reminds us, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).

I do not want to live in a society where anyone of any race gets abused or shot by police for having a toy gun or reaching for his ID or asking to see a search warrant or being a little grumpy when they get pulled over for failing to signal a lane change.

In addition to telling us why we should work for justice—because we are all connected—this metaphor also gives us insight into how we can continue to do the work of justice. The eye focuses on seeing. The stomach digests the food. The legs hold us up and move us forward. And we each do the work that is in front of us to do, while trusting that other parts of the body are doing the work that is in front of them to do. “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Romans 12:4-5).

I teach my children and preach to my congregation and write my columns. Others research the criminal justice system and police brutality and traffic stops. Others organize rallies and gather people on social media and in real life. Others promote legislation that will address the systemic racism in our country. Others work from within police departments to change police policies and procedures. The work being done is as varied as the people doing it.

A body works best when the eyes do the seeing and the stomachs the digesting and the legs the walking. Movements for justice work best when we each do what we are given to do. When we do it well. And when we cheer on others who are doing the work they have been given to do.

A body works best when the eyes do the seeing and the stomachs the digesting and the legs the walking. Movements for justice work best when we each do what we are given to do.

This is a comfort to me. Because there is so much I am not doing. There is so much I cannot do. And some things that, if I’m honest, I don’t want to do.

This body metaphor is a comfort to me because I was praying with a bunch of monks while people were marching in the streets insisting that Black Lives Matter. I need to trust that my contemplation and prayers, conversations and tears, are also part of the work that must be done.

top photo by Will H McMahan on Unsplash

On Guns, Again

The other day, as my wife and I drove north on Interstate 25 in our Mazda CX5 with our eleven-year-old daughter, Mitike, and our dog, Fable, in the backseat, I thought, “Why not get rid of all these safety features in our car?”

I mean, really, our car would have been so much cheaper without all these gratuitous extras—without the blindspot monitoring, without the brake assist or the traction control, without the air bags or the rearview mirrors or the windshield wipers or the daytime running lights. And if Mazda hadn’t been mandated to install seatbelts or spend its resources on IIHS or NHTSA safety tests, this car would be far more fun to drive.

I glanced in the unnecessary rearview mirror at Mitike, who bent over a book. What kind of world are we promising future drivers like her? All these regulations! These superfluous rules, like properly registering a vehicle, or paying for insurance on it, or passing vision and knowledge tests to get a license to drive. Fettered by decades of rules, we cannot enjoy driving. Someday, the government will probably just take away this right all together, and we will all be forced to take the public bus system.

“Um, Mom?”

“Yes, Mitike?”

“What are you writing?”

“I’m tired. Another school shooting, and no one’s going to do anything. I’m resorting to sarcasm.”

“But you’re not writing about guns.”

“Yes, I am. If guns could be regulated like cars are, we’d have far fewer deaths. Did you know that when states started requiring people to get driver’s licenses in the 1930s, they dramatically reduced accidents on the roads? And that after most states started requiring seatbelts in the 1990s, people’s injuries in car accidents decreased by half? And that when car companies started putting in air bags in the late 1990s, they reduced the mortality rate by 63 percent? A few rules, and we’re safer. I’m trying to argue that—”

“Mom, let me try.”


“Let me write your column this month.”

“Would you mind?”

Stop This NOW! A Guest Column by Mitike Iris Campbell, Age Eleven

Why do you keep letting this happen? You grown-ups are exasperating sometimes. You would not hesitate to protect your children and your family, but you hesitate at this, at choosing the safety of your family over your precious guns? The Second Amendment reads, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This does not mean that everyone just has the right to bear arms. It means we have the right to bear them in a well-regulated way. Technology like guns is always advancing, so laws must always be made and changed to protect us. Children are losing lives they have only just begun. Our future is being destroyed by your inaction here and now. Decide. Unregulated guns or continued tragedy? Danger or safety? Violence or peace? Injustice or justice? Death or life? Hatred or love? Please remember that the choices you make will affect the future as well as the present.


A question-and-answer session with the guest columnist, Mitike, who is in fifth grade and loves reading fantasy novels, considering fashion styles, playing volleyball, and relaxing with her family.

SHC: So, Mitike, why do you think school shootings are happening?

MIC: Because of guns.

SHC: Does hearing about a tragedy like the one in Florida make you feel afraid?

MIC: Yes, it does when I think about it, but most of the time I’m so focused on my work, I don’t think about it.

SHC: What does your school do to prepare for emergencies?

MIC: We do lock-downs, lock-outs. In art class, we do a lock-down drill in the kiln room. And we do have talks about this kind of thing a lot. They talk about what is appropriate and what is inappropriate to bring to school, and how you should report it if you see anyone with anything unsafe.

SHC: What’s an example of something that is inappropriate to bring to school?

MIC: Guns, knives, swords. I don’t know if swords really exist, but, you know. Daggers, bombs, but they don’t really talk about those. That’s mostly it.

SHC: What would you say to someone who says that if we allow the government to regulate guns more, the government will take them all away?

MIC: Well, it’s not necessarily a bad thing if they do. If that’s the only way they see fit to keep us safe, then it’s probably a good choice.

SHC: Like what Australia did?

MIC: Yes, I think that’s great. They’re having a fine time down there—except they do have lots of poisonous animals threatening their population, instead.

SHC: What do you think of the idea of requiring licenses for everyone who owns a gun, as a place to start?

MIC: I think that is a good idea because if we had that, then we’d be able to trust that we lived in a little bit safer country, and a little bit safer schools. Kids should not have to worry that we’re going to die.

SHC: What are some other things you worry about?

MIC: Well … I hate snakes, komodo dragons, snakes in a pit, snakes chasing me on top of a cart that wants to run me over, finding out my house is on fire in the middle of the night and not being able to run away, losing my dog. I’m worried my cousins will get me in trouble. I worry that my cousin Ryland will break his head open because he’s not being careful. I worry about doing terribly on tests. I worry that I’m not getting enough information from the books my teacher wants me to read. I worry about forgetting my homework.

SHC: Wow, that’s a lot of worries. What would a peaceful life look like for you, then?

MIC: It would be a life where I would only worry about little things I have no control over, not about my life being threatened. Not in school, anyway, where I’m trying to learn.

NOTE: Call your senators now. Tell them to support the assault weapon ban and to push legislation that requires strict licensing and regulation of guns. Donate to and join Moms Demand Action. Please. Let’s allow our kids to worry about poisonous snakes, instead.

top photo by Jose Alonso on Unsplash

We Are All Refugees

We are all refugees.

When I close my eyes, I stand trembling on the deck of a ship that has just arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana, United States. It is 1881, and my hands shake because the journey across the Atlantic was impossibly rough: seasickness, an overcrowded steerage, rampant head lice and rats, inadequate toilet facilities and tainted water. But we had to come, Wulff and I. In Germany, we would have been forced to give up our small farm and move to the city to work in grim factories, but here in America, Wulff said, we could build good lives again. Here in America, in spite of political parties that claim we new German immigrants are dangerous threats to American values and ideals, we can build a secure house, plant seeds in fertile soil, and send our children to school. America has promised us all of that. It is our refuge now.

When I open my eyes, it is 2017 and I stand in a classroom in Denver, facing thirty seniors—mostly immigrants—who bend their heads over notebooks, writing. They live in an America that has abruptly forgotten its best message: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. They live in an America where executive orders demand border walls and travel bans, where self-proclaimed white “nationalists” whisper in the president’s ear, and fear seethes in every turn of rhetoric.

We are all refugees.

As the great-great-granddaughter of Greta and Wulff, I turn to my students and I choose to listen.

I listen to Tesfay, who fled Eritrea to a refugee camp in Ethiopia when he was twelve, fearing for his safety in a country that forcibly conscripts young boys and men into the military.

Tesfay, who arrived in the US alone in 2013, regards his new life with deep brown eyes that have seen too much. In his quiet voice, he speaks of barbed wire, desert crossings, thirst, his cold fear. Friends of his have died attempting the Mediterranean crossing into Europe. Now he sits in an American high school classroom, focusing on the education that propelled him to survive. He sighs when I ask him what he wishes he could tell President Trump. “He needs to understand the story of refugees,” Tesfay says. “He needs to interact with people who are from different countries, which will make him open minded to different people. I wish everyone understood what people go through to get here, and what contributions they are making to this country.” He waits, then glances down at his homework. Back to work.

I listen to Kashindi, who arrived in the US on a rainy day in June of 2010 after living for his first thirteen years in a refugee camp in Tanzania. Kashindi’s mother fled the Congo when Uganda and Rwanda invaded and killed thousands of people.

The refugee camp was safer, but Kashindi remembers they were “held like prisoners.” He says: “We weren’t allowed to leave the camp, or go visit family members in different camps. We were surrounded by huge fences, we were like caged birds.” When Kashindi and his mother were selected by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to come to the US, they both imagined the United States as a kind of heaven, a place where the sky would rain money, where everyone was free and safe and friendly. “We ate, drank, and slept thinking about America,” Kashindi remembers. It hasn’t been the way he imagined, but it’s far better than the camp in Tanzania. Kashindi strides down the hallway to my class in his JROTC uniform, flashes me a grin, thanks me for teaching him today. “Greatness is not where you stand now, but in what direction you’re moving,” he says.

I listen to Nasra Yusuf.

In her black khimar (a head covering silkier and lighter than a hijab) with its green swirling polka dots, her multicolored print sweater, her black and turquoise striped skirt, her glasses with a Malcolm X–darkened top edge, she strikes a revolutionary stance—even the safety pin that secures the khimar beneath her chin seems a bold protest. Nasra Yusuf was born in Somalia, but her family fled to Uganda when she was a few months old—war had broken out, and “it was not safe anywhere,” she says. “We didn’t know where it was safe and where it wasn’t.”

Nasra Yusuf was six when she arrived in America. She imagined it would be a very crowded place where people constantly talked to each other, “just like our villages back home, where everyone is talking, giving each other food.” But for such a populated place, America seemed weirdly empty and quiet: “Here everyone is in their houses. They don’t even go onto the sidewalk. I didn’t expect that.” It was not welcoming, either, in spite of all the resources and opportunities it offered her family. For Nasra Yusuf, America is “a place where everybody’s categorized, and everybody belongs to a certain community, and nobody goes beyond that.” She’s certain that if everyone in America could just slow down long enough to see each other, we could create more understanding. She lifts her chin and shakes her head a little. “Instead of saying, ‘oh, this person’s Muslim, that person’s gay,’ they would see people as people they could connect to.”

I listen to Mohammed.

In 2013, at age seventeen, he emigrated to America from Iraq with his parents and his three younger brothers. They came, Mohammed explains, because: “The terrorists threatened us. My father was working security with a U.S. company in Basra, but we began to feel insecure and scared. We hoped to find a good education and a good future.” Mohammed feels America is exactly what he thought it would be, though it’s been difficult to master speaking and writing English. He thinks in Arabic and then works to translate his thoughts so English speakers can understand. By nature, he is soft-spoken, polite, tall and slender, with a shy smile. When I ask Mohammed what he wishes President Trump knew about immigrants, he hesitates, thinking. Finally, he says, “He should know that people are coming for an education and a better life, and to have a good future. Some people want to be terrorists, and they don’t want to be good, but most want to be good and have a better life. To get into America, we had to move from Iraq to Syria, then we stayed in Syria seven years. Two of those years, we had war in Syria. Then we had to do interviews and lots of papers. If people knew how much we had to do to prove we want a better life, they would help us and support us.” Mohammed does not want to comment on the recent travel ban. “We are here for a better life,” he repeats.

I listen to Ehywapaw, who was nine when she came to America from a Thai refugee camp, where she and her family, all members of the persecuted Karen ethnic group, had taken refuge.

Ehywapaw says, “My parents brought us here to get an education and a better life and resources. Back [in Thailand], we didn’t have a good education, and we had to work really low-paid jobs. Here there was better opportunity for us.” Ehywapaw hesitates. She is quiet in class, but she is an impeccable student and a highly respected Cadet Captain in the JROTC. “If I’d stayed [in the Thai camp],” she explains, “I think I would be married already. I would be working, and I would not finish school.” Here in America, Ehywapaw will do far more than just finish high school. She plans to study social work in college, to help newcomer immigrants like herself and her family. “I wish Donald Trump knew that I’m not a terrorist,” she says. “We just want a better opportunity. I’m not a bad person.” She smiles, amusement crinkling the corners of her eyes.

And I listen to Yoselyn, who came to America from Honduras in 2006, at the age of eight, all by herself.

Her mother had already made her way illegally into California and now wanted her daughter to join her. Yoselyn remembers her mother said she was going to pay someone to bring her north. If that didn’t work, her mother told her, she would have her come on a plane. Instead, Yoselyn says, “I ended up going all by myself. We went to Guatemala, and this guy came and picked me up. We were on a bus and the guy told me to go to sleep. He said he would tell an officer that I was his daughter and these were my papers. I didn’t feel scared. I just felt sad that I had to leave my nana, who was raising me.”

Yoselyn says she wishes people who are against DACA and who are so critical of undocumented immigrants would think about the fact that people come to the US for many reasons, but that “people who come here when they’re young, we don’t have an option.” But it was good she had come, Yoselyn says. If her mom hadn’t paid for her journey north, Yoselyn would have struggled to stay safe and get an education in Honduras. She ducks her head when I ask her if she’s glad she’s in the United States now. “I don’t want to be mean,” she says, examining a strand of red hair between her fingers, “but I want to be in Honduras. I miss going to the beaches.” She smiles wistfully and gazes out the window, where snowflakes fall steadily from a gray Colorado sky.

I listen to my students’ stories. And I ask you, before you make any judgment, to listen, too.

Before you support any law, listen. Before you blindly acquiesce to any ban, to any wall, to any order: listen. These students—Yoselyn, Ehywapaw, Mohammed, Nasra Yusuf, Kashindi and Tesfay—are six of the thousands who have come seeking refuge in the US in the past years. They have sought refuge from controlling governments, unsafe environments, religious persecution, wars, lack of opportunity. And they arrived in a country that promised the opposite of all of that. A democratic government. Secure, sunny neighborhoods. Religious freedom and freedom of expression. Safety. Free and equitable education.

They came seeking the refuge my great-great-grandparents, Wulff and Greta, came seeking. It has long been America’s promise

And yet. Every day of Trump’s presidency, we risk becoming more like the countries these students—and immigrants like Wulff and Greta—have fled

Listen. Listen, and then keep calling your senators, and keep reading, and keep thinking critically about what is true and what is not. Make it your goal to keep this country the nation refugees have dreamed for centuries—and not a country we have to flee.

All names of students have been changed to protect their privacy.

top photo by Matteo Paganelli on Unsplash