To be Muslim, Black, and Undocumented
How Trump’s threat to end DACA almost extinguished one DREAMer’s hope of becoming a teacher
“I’m Muslim, I’m a woman, I’m black. That’s three strikes that I’m working with,” Fatima Coundoul says as she introduces herself at a panel on how to protect immigrants at Lehman College in The Bronx.
Fatima’s story is one of many millions of immigrants whose entire lives have been uprooted, whose livelihoods are thrown into question, and who, for the umpteenth time, are facing a sea of uncertainty.
But in the midst of this dizzying and disorienting year marked by a rise in hate crimes against Muslim Americans – and three attempts to ban Muslims from entering the United States – Muslims in America are facing these bitter times with determination to learn how to navigate the new set of roadblocks, and to advance through resistance and with a firm grip on hope.
Fatima, Fatou to family and friends, was born in Italy to a Senegalese family and immigrated to New York City with her family at the age of nine. Although fluent in three languages — Italian, French and Wolof — she quickly found that English allowed her to express herself best. “I didn’t speak it very well at first,” she said, “by the time I was in ninth or tenth grade I already knew that I wanted to be an English teacher.”
Today, Fatou is an English major at Lehman College, and uses her skills and passion to conduct poetry workshops and teach at a local charter school in The Bronx. She was on her way to becoming an English teacher before the latest incarnation of Trump’s draconian immigration policies brought her career to a staggering halt.
Like millions of immigrant children who arrived to the United States with their parents, Fatou had been eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which provided her with documentation to attend school and work without facing penalties. And Fatou did just that – she pursued an education at Lehman and worked part-time tutoring children and performing poetry. But when President Trump signed an executive order in September 2017 ending the DACA program and putting the lives of some 700,000 young immigrants and their families in jeopardy, Fatou was forced out of her job and out of her program at Lehman.
“Here, at Lehman College, many of the students on campus are DACA recipients. It flipped a lot of us upside down.”
Most DACA recipients come from a mixed-status household. Fatou’s three younger siblings are citizens; she alone is undocumented. According to the Pew Research Center, over nine million people live in mixed-status families – that’s about a quarter of the immigrant population in the United States. While Fatou’s siblings are able to navigate society as citizens, albeit with the obstacles of racism and Islamophobia, she has to deal with the additional hurdle of her immigration status.
“I found out my immigration status, which I had not fully understood, only recently,” Fatou explained. “Although my sisters are all citizens and were born here, I’m not. I have to deal with a range of things that don’t affect them. For example, I don’t get financial aid for school.”
DACA is often shrouded with confusion, but it’s actually fairly simple. It allows for some individuals who entered the country as undocumented minors to work and pursue education for a period of two years, after which they must apply for renewal. When Trump issued his executive order, the DACA program was suspended, meaning that if an individual’s DACA is set to expire after March 5, 2018, he or she is no longer eligible for renewal.
(Update: The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up DACA, which means that it will stay in place even after March 5.)
“That’s what happened to me,” said Fatou. “Some people were fortunate enough to fall into the time frame that Trump gave. For people like me whose permits expire past the deadline, we don’t get the renewal.”
It was clear from Fatou’s enthusiasm and excitement when she spoke about her job that working with children, touring and writing poetry with them, was her passion. For two years, she worked one-on-one with middle and high school students, hosting poetry readings and clubs, teaching them about Black History Month and reading and discussing current events.
Fatou’s job wasn’t just a space for her to practice her teaching skills, to grow and to develop with the young people she taught: it was also a literal lifeline for her to continue pursuing her education.
The vast majority of DACA recipients rely heavily on their ability to work to sustain not only themselves, but their parents and siblings. They act as a vital source of income to their families, many of which have undocumented members who are unable to work or who face extremely high levels of risk.
“It impacts me greatly to this day and impacts my family and friends as well. Here, at Lehman College, many of the students on campus are DACA recipients. It flipped a lot of us upside down.”
In the weeks after her DACA was rescinded, Fatou struggled to find a way to pay for college tuition for the fall semester. Her job at the charter school kept her in college but suddenly, out of nowhere, she was going to have to put her college education on hold. For how long remained unknown.
“People expect you to run a race but they tie your feet. That’s exactly how it feels. They tie your feet and you can barely move. But they still expect you to run the race.”
At Lehman, Fatou founded the Muslim Women in Leadership club, one of the many initiatives she led on Lehman’s campus. When she found herself unable to pay for tuition after being forced out of her job, friends came together and started an online fundraiser for Fatou. It took only 24 hours for the site to go viral and to raise the amount Fatou needed to cover school expenses.
“In my day-to-day life, I am surrounded by immigrants and I am an immigrant,” Fatou said on the panel at her school. “I’m taught by immigrants. We understand each other and what we’re dealing with. People who are in the government and are making up these laws are not immigrants. They know nothing about immigration.”
And though Fatima’s return to Lehman is a victory worth celebrating, some larger questions loom over her future: what will be the repercussions of Trump’s termination of DACA? Where is the decades-old and intensifying war against Muslims, immigrants, and African Americans headed next?
“In both cases, when Obama was in office and now Trump after him, I think that the immigration system in this country is horrible,” Fatou says. “People expect you to run a race but they tie your feet. That’s exactly how it feels. They tie your feet and you can barely move. But they still expect you to run the race.”
It was, after all, President Obama who deported more people than all other 20th century American heads-of-state put together. Trump inherited this deportation machine and expanded its reach.
Throughout the ups and downs of her ordeal, Fatou’s relationship to her religion, Islam, has pushed her forward and helped guide and ground her. “Islam means everything to me. I’m nothing without my religion. I love my religion. I love working to have relationships with my lord,” she explains.
But she says this wasn’t always the case. In fact, before moving back to Senegal at the age of five, Fatou was convinced she was a Christian because of the impact of her Catholic education in Italy.
“I went back to Senegal at the age of five, and I realized that, ‘oh snap, I’m not Catholic I’m actually Muslim,’” she said jokingly. “By the time I found out what the hijab was, I had to beg my parents to let me wear it.”
The Bronx is now home for Fatou, it’s where she grew up and where her family and friends are. “Although I would love to return to Senegal one day, maybe to teach, I’m from The Bronx,” Fatou says. “The Bronx is all I know.”
The vast majority of the over 11 million undocumented people in this country are here because their home countries have been devastated by war and austerity brought on in many ways by U.S. imperialism. The same applies to refugees who are now barred from entering the United States, or the over 300,000 individuals from Haiti and Central and South America whose Temporary Protected Status is set to expire in the coming months or has recently expired. And yet the war on immigrants here at home continues to rage.
DACA allowed some immigrants to remain in the U.S., keeping families together instead of tearing them apart by sending members back to war-torn countries, places where some immigrants hadn’t been in decades. People are fleeing for their lives and the U.S. is not only closing its doors and demanding they return to violence and famine, but it’s literally pushing them out, throwing them into chaos and, in many cases, deadly situations that the U.S. itself helped to create.
We have to try to understand this situation and struggle to resist it. Getting lost and disoriented in these stormy times is all too easy. But, as Fatima says, “don’t let everything swallow you.” With patience and tenacity, we can push back the tide.
Here’s an excerpt from a poem by Fatima:
“We live in a land where there’s land of racism and hypocrisy
Where people aren’t afraid to repeat a broken history
A land where lies are praised
Killers get away with murder
As we countdown the days of the deceit
Feeling hope but only to end up feeling defeat
While this never-ending cycle rinses and repeats
And we march with wet eyes and clenched teeth
The blood of our loved ones painting the streets
While we scream with every ounce of frustration
I can’t breathe”