The Refugee Elected President

In Charlottesville, Virginia, one class president’s journey through American public education exemplifies a national debate.

A student's hands hold a pencil in front of a book whose cover reads "Inside the USA"
Christine Armario / AP

Kibiriti Majuto is the senior-class president at Charlottesville High School, an ethnically diverse and STEM-obsessed campus in the middle of Virginia’s rolling hills. Seven miles away from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and only a five-minute drive from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville High’s 1,203 students speak a total of 34 languages.

Majuto has lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, for five years—the entirety of his time in the United States. He arrived from South Africa, where his family waited in limbo while escaping war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When I met him at a coffee shop on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, we sat outside, and our conversation was frequently punctuated by waves and greetings as Majuto was recognized by friends and classmates passing by. Majuto is well-known at Charlottesville High, but he felt uncomfortable recently when a classmate insisted that he is popular. His goal has never been popularity; he just tries to be friendly and get along with different groups at school.

As a refugee student, Majuto is far from an outlier. Charlottesville is one of 29 U.S. cities home to the International Rescue Committee, a nongovernmental organization that provided humanitarian aid to 23 million people globally in 2015.* Harriet Kuhr, the executive director of the Charlottesville branch, estimates that refugees make up roughly 3 percent of the greater Charlottesville area’s population, which currently hovers around 120,000 people.**

“That’s a number that you notice,” Kuhr said. “It’s not overwhelming, but it’s not invisible.”

During the 2015-16 school year, 47 percent of English-language learners in Charlottesville City Schools were refugees, compared to only 3 percent migrants. The most common languages are Spanish, Nepali, Arabic, and Swahili, respectively, with the vast majority of students placing at the lowest level of English proficiency. In contrast to the monolithic images of refugees braving the Mediterranean and struggling to migrate through Europe, the refugees who have settled in Charlottesville bring an astounding array of individual backgrounds, ethnicities, and stories.

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As Virginia’s former governor, Tim Kaine, contends for the vice presidency alongside Hillary Clinton, national politics hit particularly close to home in the swing state. Throughout the election season, national narratives about Muslim immigration, the Syrian refugee crisis, and swelling fears of terrorism have become increasingly conflated with stories of an economic depression that has left many white Americans feeling adrift. They’ve also been complicating the classroom experience at Charlottesville’s schools.

Less than three miles away from Majuto’s school at Albemarle High, Russell Carlock—a social-studies teacher who also specializes in teaching English as a second language—has felt dismayed upon seeing the complex stories refugees have brought into his classroom compressed into 30-second soundbites. As an educator, Carlock’s goal is to teach his students how to think about politicians’ motivations a lens to understand the things they say. But when the issues touch his students personally, the conversation shifts.

On the day we spoke, a student had come to Carlock with a question about the Ku Klux Klan. The student was confused about why the KKK had been in the news; he had only heard stories about the group framed in terms of the distant past.

“I confirmed for him that they still exist and there are white supremacists who exist in the United States,” Carlock said. “Coming to the United States, that was not part of the image he had of this country. The idea that there are still people who have that ideology was shocking to him, and he wanted to talk about it.”

The reverberation of the national election on local incidents was amplified during the Democratic National Convention, after the immigrant and Charlottesville attorney Khizr Khan  told the story of his son who died in an explosion in Iraq in 2004 and was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Trump provoked national outrage after implying that Khan’s wife, Ghazala, had remained silent during the DNC speech because the Khans are Muslim.

Though the Khans did not immigrate to the United States as refugees, the distinction between refugees and Muslim immigrants is muddled in the public imagination. The IRC’s Kuhr believes that the steady stream of photos and videos of Syrian refugees making the trip across the Mediterranean by boat have stirred needless fears, further fueling backlash stoked by campaign rhetoric such as Trump’s promise to deport Muslim immigrants. The Obama administration’s pledge to accept 10,000 refugees has also become entangled in the national conversation on immigration, further muddling public understanding.

In reality, the immigration of refugees to the United States is tightly monitored. The United States conducts investigations while refugees are still living in camps overseas. By the time a refugee reaches the United States, her identity has already been verified through a lengthy security investigation years in the making. This heavy vetting process puts refugees on a solid path to legal immigration; this year, 75 new citizens from 41 different countries were recognized during a ceremony at Monticello on July 4.

There are misconceptions on the refugee side as well. In 2008, Mirna Dickey, an IRC family-support coordinator who works closely with both the Charlottesville City and adjacent Albemarle County school systems, traveled to refugee camps in Nepal with the Department of State. As she met refugees in camps there, she heard a rumor circulating, for example, that refugees would not be allowed to marry once they reached the United States, perhaps due to confusion about the higher legal ages of consent required in America. More common points of confusion involve wealth and employment. In rural refugee camps, refugees are often surprised to learn that livestock—a key mode of capital—can’t accompany them to the United States, forcing them to adapt to a new financial reality.

The complex diversity of Charlottesville’s immigrant community resists sweeping generalizations. Among local business owners, University of Virginia students, and newly arrived refugees in search of a fresh start, it’s easy to forget that one of Charlottesville’s most famous residents—Dave Matthews—is an immigrant, too.

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Majuto remembers his entrance into the Charlottesville City school system as a surreal process. Someone from the IRC picked him up at his house and drove him to Buford Middle School. He was surprised to learn that a teacher was waiting there to welcome him.

“That was something I would never expect,” Majuto said. “It was very special, but also very strange and unorthodox to me” compared to his experiences in South Africa. Throughout middle and high school, Majuto found his teachers to be approachable and easy to talk to as he learned to navigate the American school system.

His experience represents a significant stride toward progress. In the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, Charlottesville participated massive resistance with support from Virginia Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr., and avoided integration until 1958, when a federal mandate forced the matter.

Still, even when their transition goes relatively smoothly, refugee students often face a host of academic challenges that are familiar to all kinds of newcomers. In school, Majuto points to the language barrier as the most significant point of friction between refugees and American students. In South Africa, he was expected to write and speak English fluently and recognizes that his proficiency gave him a head start that many refugees lack. Yet Majuto understands that there is typically a lack of malice when American classmates express frustration with refugees—and that the burden for understanding often falls on refugee students. “How can you blame the American kid?” Majuto asks. “He does not know you’re not [an English speaker]. You have to be very patient.”

The language barrier has implications beyond simple misunderstandings among classmates. On his first day in the American school system, Majuto remembers being astounded by the amount of testing required to determine his grade and language placement. Majuto came away from the testing troubled by how essential the language was to non-language subjects like mathematics, which often use short stories to illustrate problems. These types of language-intensive problems simultaneously test language and math skills, making it impossible to disentangle one evaluation from the other.

Majuto’s fascination—and annoyance—with the level of testing American students face is complicated by his parents’ lack of familiarity with the complexities of the college-application process. At times, they have expressed disbelief that he must spend so much time studying for tests. His older brother began working immediately after high-school graduation, making Majuto potentially the first person in his family to attend college. For college placement tests like the SAT that cost a fee and take place outside of normal school hours, there are additional hoops of explanation for Majuto to jump through.

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Although he has found the Charlottesville school system warm and welcoming, Majuto is highly aware of the current of xenophobia swirling through the 2016 election. Obsessed with history and politics, Majuto has found watched the election season unfold with fascination.

It worries him that so many voters cast their ballot for a single issue. “It’s dangerous,” he said, especially for his family and friends. Majuto is Muslim, and he can’t ignore the frightening reality that Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration is already undermining the sacred American value of religious freedom.

Before Majuto’s family resettled in the United States, he was old enough to remember a summer in South Africa when police demanded to see his mother’s papers. He recalls other members of the refugee community—parents, aunts, uncles—being taken away by police. The episode left a deep impression and, according to his recollection, may have been part of the South African government’s response to May 2008 riots in which local South Africans attacked and injured migrants in the Alexandra township. Anti-migrant violence spread to other parts of the country and continued to simmer long after the attacks were quelled. To Majuto, it doesn’t feel like a stretch to imagine that a similar scenario could play out in the volatile atmosphere the 2016 election has stirred.

“We have a candidate who wants to deport my friends and ban a religion and a lady who the country hates. This election scares me a lot when I think about it,” Majuto said. Majuto sometimes wonders who is easier to distract—an American voter, or a cat faced with a laser pointer. “It’s really funny,” he said, “but not in a good way.”

In his classroom, Carlock, the social-studies teacher, hopes to impart a larger sense of history, context, and perspective. He points out that there are clear historical reasons behind the current election, and that the forces of nativism and discrimination it has brought to the surface are hardly new. “It’s about helping students to see where they are in that long narrative,” Carlock said, “and empowering students to play a role in that narrative so they feel a sense of agency.”

This November, Majuto hopes to travel to Washington, D.C., to lobby for Syrian refugees, marking a year after the House approved a significantly tighter screening process in reaction to the Paris attacks. He would bring six classmates from Charlottesville High School to be part of a group of over 60 people from Virginia, Massachusetts, and D.C. He is also preparing a fundraising effort that would allow students and teachers from Charlottesville to attend the Inauguration—if Hillary Clinton is elected.

Though Majuto views his refugee identity as a deeply important part of himself, there are days when his patience wears thin. One day in class, a substitute teacher asked where he was from while calling roll. He told her that he was from Charlottesville, but she pressed him for more information until he divulged that he had been born in the Congo.

“I get tired of telling people where I’m from,” Majuto admitted before adding his mantra: “You just have to be very patient.”

Still, he remains hopeful. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, the United States’ 69.2 million Millennials nearly match the voting power of the country’s 69.7 million Baby Boomers. Although he is still a few years away from becoming a citizen, Majuto has been phone banking for Hillary Clinton and Jane Dittmar, a Democratic candidate for Congress, in between juggling his college applications and coursework.

Majuto believes that the path to greater harmony lies in getting to know different kinds of people. It’s fun, he pointed out, and could lead to stronger, more empathetic policies that more accurately respond to Americans’ increasingly diverse needs. “We’re stronger together,” he said. “I think it would be really swell if people connect to the other side.”

* This article originally misstated the name of the International Rescue Committee as the International Refugee Committee. We regret the error.

** This article originally misstated the population of Charlottesville. We regret the error.