What Black Folks and Recent Refugees Have in Common

“For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.” -James Baldwin’s letter to Angela Davis.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Poitiers, France to attend a conference themed, “How Schools Can Support Refugees and Immigrants.” Educators from Europe, Minnesota, and Colorado joined together to share how our schools support immigrants, refugees, and other at-risk students. For example, in Minnesota, the district works to hire teachers who share the language and culture of  immigrant students.

Supports for immigrant students were varied. For example, Scotland’s school-based summer camps help students access their new world. These summer camps support students’ language acquisition, and exposed them to new art forms, fishing, bike riding, etc.

I shared our experience supporting and integrating families of Iraqi refugees. Children who told stories that made us all blink. Students whose education was interrupted by imported American chaos and stints in two refugee camps in Syria and Egypt before making their way to west Philly.

In England, I interacted with a principal of an all-girls school with a 40% Muslim population. Some of the Minnesota educators shared their partnership with the higher education community. We were able to exchange notes about residing in Sanctuary Cities and Minneapolis’s policies relating immigrant families.

A persistent colonial mindset towards people of color-immigrants and residents

It should be noted that all the participating countries were “former” colonial powers. It struck me to hear how some of these educators were resisting various forms of populism that reflected racist and colonial mindsets. Fresh off Brexit, Trump’s looming inauguration, and the apparent imminent rise of Marine Le Pen to the French presidency, educators across the west were grappling with how, we, as educators, help students we serve navigate the white supremacy prevalent in America, Europe, and beyond.

It was interesting to see up close what immigrants from North Africa, for example, need to combat. France has a theme, “One Country, One Language” that belies the fact that they are a bilingual country. Some French (like many Americans) questioned why they even had immigrants. They believe they can rape and pillage other countries, fill their coffers, and still have the audacity to get angry that people are following their countries’ pillaged resources.

Today, as educators and allies, we will need to redouble our efforts on behalf of immigrants here in the States. This is not a short-term goal. Our most marginalized communities will continue to be assaulted in myriad ways for the foreseeable future.

Oppression comes in all forms. And victims are many. As activists, new and veteran, seek to utilize the supports that immigrants and refugees need, it should come as no surprise that Black children are “refugees” in the very country that many claim.

Marginalized, living in communities starved for resources, and deported, en masse, to prisons, Black families have historically suffered America’s contempt, the very contempt that today engulfs us in regard to Muslim immigrants.

There is an Islamic tradition that calls for solidarity with the oppressed. “Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then [let him change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart — and that is the weakest of faith.” 

Immigrant and refugee students and families, you are not alone. We will not remain silent. Our faith is strong. Pamoja Tutashinda.

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


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