"Let us fight with love, faith, and courage." - Sophie Cruz
I interviewed Meirav Solomon, a 16-year-old immigrant rights activist from Raleigh, NC. We talked about family history, Fox News’ immigration rhetoric, and being Jewish in the south.
Isabel: What got you involved in immigrant rights activism?
Meirav: I don’t think there was one moment that spurred my activism for immigrant rights, but more that the passion that drives me to focus on it, is inherent. My great-great grandparents immigrated to this country before the Holocaust began. While they didn’t have to bear the horrifying and terrible actions of Nazis during the Holocaust, the reason they immigrated to America was to escape the preamble of this Anti-Semitic sentiment. They went to school and lived through their childhoods in Russia until the anti-Jewish riots became too violent to live through. My great-great grandpa had to move to the US before the rest of his family because they didn’t have enough money for the whole family. While trying to acquire more money to get to the US, my great-great grandma moved to England with her kids. As a single Jewish mother with a family to take care of, I cannot imagine the struggles that she had to go through. Learning a new language, assimilating to a new culture, watching her sons join the US army after Pearl Harbor, yet still maintaining a true connection to her culture and religion. She wanted to escape a horrible living situation at home and was able to do it legally. Not all immigrants are awarded that chance and it is largely the fault of the United States immigration system which is inherently organized to keep people out of our country. I believe there is a middle ground when it comes to common sense immigration reform and I am committed to shining a light on it.
Isabel: How do you feel that other issues you are passionate about like mental health awareness and gun reform are intersectional with your immigration activism?
Meirav: Immigration is at the epicenter of the biggest issues of our time. It relates to mental health issues when immigrant kids have trauma from leaving the only place they have called home to come to a new country where they are not safe. The trauma one gets from being separated from family like what is happening at the border today. According to the New York Times, it will take about 2 years to identify all of the immigrants who are being detained and have been separated. There is psychological distress that comes from never knowing if you will be deported at any moment and the anxiety, depression or fear that are results of that distress. It becomes even worse when they can’t access the help they need because it is too expensive or because they can’t speak English to even ask for it. Immigration issues also relate to gun reform when the rhetoric against admitting immigrants into our country is surrounding around the gun problem that America has. A study done in Texas showed that for every 100,000 immigrants, only 719 committed crimes and another study showed in Texas that 85% of crimes were committed by native-born citizens in 2015, as well. Yet, when people turn on Fox News, all they hear is Sean Hannity ranting about how he needs more assault rifles to protect himself against the gang members or Mexicans carrying guns who are about to attack him and his family.
Isabel: That’s a good point. Why do you believe that young people especially young immigrants should be involved in the fight for equality and justice?
Meirav: It is imperative that young people be involved in activism in any way that we can. Usually, what I hear as an excuse is that politics are boring or that it takes a lot of work or that “I’m not smart enough to talk about these things.” The truth is that these issues will affect your daily life for the next 40-70 years, so if you want to live in a diverse and welcoming community, be able to breathe oxygen, not hear about school shootings every day, and generally have the rights that you deserve as a human being, then yes it will take a lot of work. So, get smart and educate yourself about an issue that you really care about. It’s not hard when you remember the urgency and you choose an issue that you have a passion for.
Isabel: Totally. l can relate to the struggle of advocating for social change in the south as well. What is experience like and what inspires you to create change in your community?
Meirav: Being Jewish in the south is an experience that I am actually thankful for. It has spurred my passion for activism and helped inspire me to educate and motivate others to join the fight. Honestly, I try not to see most issues as a fight anymore. It’s super easy to see conservative minded people as the enemy, but I am working toward seeing them as human beings who have a different way of solving the same problem that I am trying to solve. Having discussions and opening your mind to understand their side of the story is really important and has been crucial to my political activism. Additionally, realizing that not all republicans are racist, sexist, and homophobic, is something that has led me to engage in the best discussions and eye-opening conversations I have ever had.
Isabel: Are there any current activism projects you wanna shout out or plans for the future?
Meirav: I am just trying to support all of the amazing activist friends that I have made on their activism projects, so I don’t have anything personally that I am spearheading, but if I do begin a new project or initiative, you will find out about it on my Instagram. One of the projects that I want to highlight is Silence the Stigma. They are working towards complete mental health awareness.
Isabel: What advice would you give to other young people who want to speak out and change the world?
Meirav: You have the tools, you have the time, you have the voice, and you have the passion. Just go out into the world and do it.
I talked to Hillary Shah, an 18 year-old immigrant rights activist from Denton, Texas. We chatted about the ACLU, being elected the youngest SGA VP, and first-gen status.
Isabel: Can you tell me a little bit about your work with immigrant rights? What inspired you to get involved and why is the work so important?
Hillary: I am the daughter of immigrants, a first generation American, and a first generation college student. My parents immigrated here a year before I was born and that always influenced everything I stood for. My activism started when I had an immigration law mentorship and got to see people who were directly impacted by policies being made. That was when I was 16 and it was the same year as the wall debate and travel ban. A lot of the people I met were affected by those things. It led me to getting a summer internship with the ACLU and being elected the youngest vice president of my school’s SGA. I want to work with the ACLU to gauge how we are doing on a national level and then bring those tools back to my campus.
Isabel: Wow. That’s amazing. What do you think our lawmakers could be doing better when it comes to how this country treats young immigrants?
Hillary: I think it’s just understanding that we are human beings and we want the same things. If lawmakers would just talk to the people being impacted by these policies, it would make a huge difference. Facts and statistics are good, but you need to look into the faces of people who just want to be happy and free.
Isabel: You mentioned being a first generation American and college student. What are some misconceptions that you have ran into regarding those things?
Hillary: A lot of times I am not allowed to be in the room even if I have better qualifications than the people who are allowed to be in there and that is because of my first-gen status. Despite that, I have been fortunate enough to realize that being a first-gen is an advantage. My existence and my activism will have a legacy.
Isabel: Totally. You also mentioned being elected as the youngest VP in your school’s SGA history. That is so cool. What plans do you have to push your community toward equality going forward?
Hillary: I ran with my close friend who is also the daughter of immigrants and we realized that a lot of voices like ours weren’t being heard. We wanted to call for change that everyone else had already been talking about. We want a minimum wage, a sexual assault survivors fund, more networking events for first-gen students, and other things that have always been needed, but just not talked about.
Isabel: Are there any current activism projects or plans for the future you would like to talk about?
Hillary: Right now, we are just focusing on some really cool policies for SGA. I am also going to the ACLU this summer to help out with voter rights.
Isabel: What advice would you give to other young people who want to speak out and change the world?
Hillary: You are enough and you can do more than you think.
I spoke with Jelena Dragicevic, an 18 year-old immigrant rights activist from West Valley City, UT. We talked about being well-informed, the generalization of immigration, and debate.
Isabel: What do immigrant rights mean to you as the daughter of two Yugoslavian refugees?
Jelena: Growing up as a first-generation American, I have had to deal with a lot of misinformation and stereotypes surrounding my family’s Yugoslavian background. However, I feel that these elements stem from a weak education curriculum and people’s lack of curiosity. What is taught in the classrooms oversimplifies history, tarnishing the reputation of certain ethnicities. Reforming the way immigrants’ history is taught will require time, but right now people can learn to be well-informed before judging others. The first step to making someone feel respected is taking the initiative to listen and learn about their unique background, without jumping to conclusions. Being the daughter of Yugoslavian refugees has led me to believe that immigrant rights is the willingness to learn about people from all over the world in a way that does not dehumanize their story.
Isabel: What do you believe needs to change with the way our society discusses immigration?
Jelena: I feel that society often generalizes immigration as if it is a choice. In reality, it is very hard to leave the home and people who made you who you are. People who immigrate are doing it because they feel that a quality life is being jeopardized. It is unfortunate that people frown on the decisions of others from a position of comfort and apathy. We claim that everyone has the right to food, health, education, and shelter, yet certain people still have the audacity to say that some are more deserving of these basic necessities than others. As a youth activist, I have had to deal with people telling me that I am not allowed to voice my concerns because it is already enough that the United States provided me and my family refuge. However, I feel that growing up with a different culture is an advantage. It allows you to notice certain differences between your previous and current home. It is because of these factors that immigrants should be valued for the input they can bring on social change. Personally, I love this country enough to want to fix it.
Isabel: Totally. I know that you are a debater and frequently discuss immigration in your debates. Why is it important for you to use your platform to make change?
Jelena: For me, debate is a platform meant to get some conversation on a particular issue. Hopefully, this starts a chain reaction of people taking the initiative to at least be more aware of the struggles and lives of immigrants. I remember when I was coming home from a national tournament, and a man approached me. He shook my hand and thanked me for inspiring him to learn more about the political injustices in Kosovo. I may live in the United States, but my words have connected me to my Yugoslavian community all around the world. Where injustice has prevailed, my words and voice have acted on behalf of peace. Where distance has been an enemy, my words and voice have been my bridge. Where I have felt disregarded in my struggles, my words and voice have given me comfort. This is why debate has been an important platform for my youth activism.
Isabel: What do you think youth activism can do to promote tolerance and change in the future?
Jelena: Encouraging people to be inquisitive and educated is key. In an age of fast-paced media, it is very common to base our lives on bigotry and intolerance. Reminding people that it is okay to take a moment to ask, listen, and learn, before labeling others, is important. By creating this dialogue, people are more inclined to collaborate with one another to spark change.
Isabel: That’s right. Are there any current activism projects you are working on that you want to shout out?
Jelena: I am working on a page that will include interviewing people about their culture. You don’t have to be an immigrant to be featured. Being the daughter of Yugoslavian refugees has drastically affected what I stand for and I am interested in learning how other people’s backgrounds have affected them. I hope this page will show that diversity is an asset to our lives.
Isabel: I’m asking everybody this: What advice do you have for young people who want to speak out and change the world?
Jelena: Take a moment to sit back, breathe, and listen. Discover what you agree and disagree with, but most importantly, understand why. It’s only when we have invested in learning about ourselves that we get a sense of which issues we want to see most resolved.
I had a great conversation with Kaleab Jegol, an 18 year-old immigration activist from Cincinnati, Ohio. We talked about immigrant students, the Eighteen x 18 Summit, and grassroots movements.
Isabel: What do you think that lawmakers should know about being a young immigrant in America?
Kaleab: Lots of lawmakers put this idea around immigrants that we are coming to this country to do these really great things, when in reality, we are just normal people who shouldn’t have those expectations placed on us to simply exist in this country. I wish the dialogue around immigration would change from “oh Albert Einstein was an immigrant” to “oh these are just people who want to raise families here, go to school here, and be normal sometimes.”
Isabel: How does being a young immigrant affect your perspective regarding the current issues with immigration in this country?
Kaleab: The biggest thing for me is just the level of empathy I have. For me, I am structuring my story in immigrant and non-immigrant communities to say that these people are not leaving their home countries because they wanted to, they are leaving because they had to. Sometimes, coming to the United States is their only option. I have had to restructure what it means for me to be an immigrant and restructure my own story to try and get people to learn from it.
Isabel: How do you feel that our education system should change when it comes to the way we discuss immigration in schools?
Kaleab: Personally, I am very passionate about what we are teaching our immigrant students in schools. I want to talk about how a lot of K-12 teachers are assuming immigrant children will do worse work because they are immigrants and stopping their potential. When schools talk about diversity and inclusion, immigrant’s stories are not often added into a curriculum. The idea that immigrant kids will automatically do worse because they are “behind” is not true. When immigrant students are given the opportunity to live up to their full potential, we see they are doing better than non-immigrant students and testing really well too.
Isabel: You work with many youth activism groups on a variety of issues. What has working with other kids to fight for change taught you?
Kaleab:Every time I work with other youth I realize that we really have grown up hearing this rhetoric that there wasn’t space for us to do these hard things until we become adults and every time I work on a youth-led project, I see how false that is. I was at the Eighteen x 18 Summit where 12 year olds and 22 year olds were equally heard and had the same impact. Whenever I get discouraged, I remind myself of that.
Isabel: How was the Eighteen x 18 Summit? What did you learn?
Kaleab: I learned that when we bring some of America’s top youth activists together, we have really good ideas. We pushed out the #ItsPersonal campaign, had it all over social media, and it trended on Twitter. I thought the Summit would just give me information to take back to my community, but we also got to make a direct impact on the mid-term elections.
Isabel: That’s awesome. Are there any current activism projects you are working on that you would like to talk about?
Kaleab: Me and another guy on the Women’s March team are working on pushing out a project regarding toxic masculinity and how it affects our society. Then here on campus at Ohio State, I am working with a group called Advocates for Women Around the World on an event to discuss immigration and girl’s education.
Isabel: I’m asking everybody this: What advice would you give to other kids to want to speak out and change the world?
Kaleab: When you are looking into starting activism and getting excited about it, don’t assume that you have to be this very famous activist to make an impact because some of the most impactful projects I have ever heard of are by people doing local grassroots work. The value of that is so important. Without it, we wouldn’t have March For Our Lives or even the Civil Rights Movement. You don’t have to have this outrageously huge idea to make an impact, you can do it in your community.
I had a very in-depth conversation with Lina Fernandez, a 17 year-old immigration rights activist based in Miami, Florida. We talked about representing diverse cultures, conservative literature, and why museums are so important.
Isabel: Why do you think it is important for kids to get involved in things happening around the world and not just their country or direct community?
Lina: I think it’s important for kids to think globally when they’re trying to make change because we really are the next generation’s leaders for the entire world. When I think of my activism, I think very locally because that’s where I have done the most work and I think that’s a good starting point for a lot of kids. I know people like me who are from a rural area don’t have access to global organizations, so you have to start small and do what you can in your own community.
Isabel: As a young immigration activist, why do you think that young people seem to be much more passionate about the rights of migrant families than the lawmakers are?
Lina: Immigration is something that affects me personally. I am the daughter of a Cuban immigrant who came here in the 70’s and was granted political asylum. All my friends are either immigrants or the children of immigrants because I am from South Florida, so that’s something we have to think about on a daily basis and it touches all of our lives. Kids here are invested in the issue because it affects them personally. It affects their ability to go to college, to get financial aid, to get loans for housing and for their parents to have good jobs. Immigration is huge and it defines so many factors of people’s lives. I think one of the reasons lawmakers aren’t focused on it is because if you’re white and American-born, you don’t have the same sense of urgency around the issue that we as Latinos do. I would love to see more Latinx people in Congress. That would make a big difference.
Isabel: For sure. A lot of what is taught in schools about the history of America, in my opinion seems to be very biased towards nationalism with things like Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. What do you think needs to change with the way our education system teaches the foundation of this country?
Lina: For one, we need to diversify the kind of literature that we’re reading. For example, SAT books are written for as wide of an audience as possible so they can sell them everywhere, but that means kids around the country are learning things that people in the most conservative states think are true and OK. I think it’s important that people realize for kids in areas like my community of Miami, we are not relating to some of the works we are told are the foundation of literature and of our history. We want work that speaks to us and our experiences. Broadening the types of literature we read is important because kids learn from people who look like them and speak like them and have their experiences.
Isabel: That’s a great point. I feel like girls have always been at the forefront of movements fighting for freedom and equality. As a young girl, why do you think that we are so powerful when it comes to creating action on a larger scale?
Lina: I think there is something inherently powerful about being a girl. That idea of the feminine energy and spirit that is innate in all of us being built on the history of the women who came before is so monumental. It is this untapped force in every single girl. I think that’s why we are often on the frontlines fighting because we know what it’s like to be oppressed in different parts of our lives. Especially women of color who are trans women, who are poor women, and who don’t have the abilities that other women have. We know how important it is to show up for other communities even if we don’t belong to them. It’s never really been a choice, it has been a matter of our survival. If we didn’t stand up for ourselves, nobody else would.
Isabel: I love your Instagram account and I can tell from looking at it that you really like art. Why do you think activism through art is so needed for creating change?
Lina: I do work at an art museum and we try to be as political as possible not just in the art we show, but also in fundraising and supporting local artists. We try to show a lot of art from the Cuban and Caribbean Diaspora because we realize it is important for visitors of this museum to see art that reflects them. I think it is important for museums to do this because they have such a weight in our culture and when our museums are white, male, and conservative, whole areas of the population don’t feel represented.
Isabel: Are there any activism projects you are currently working on that you wanna shout out?
Lina: Right now, I am working with the League of Women Voters of Miami-Dade on a Power to the Polls party. We got funding from our state group to do 4 Power to the Polls events in Miami which are these block parties 100 ft away from the nearest polling station. There will be food trucks, community partners, and it is Halloween themed, so people can bring their kids. It’s a way of getting the community out to vote. I am also working with the Miami-Dade Teen Democrats on a Young Leaders Summit which we did last year as well.
Isabel: I’m asking everybody this: As you know, mid-term elections are November 6th. In your opinion, why is it important to get out and vote?
Lina: It is the only way you are guaranteed to have your voice represented and as someone from an immigrant family, I know what it’s like to have your voice not represented. I have family and friends who cannot vote. That’s why in Miami whenever we do voter registration, we also have a table for just contacting your representatives because their are so many undocumented people in our society who can’t vote. In my state on the ballot this November, we have Amendment 4 which is restoring ballot rights for felons who have completed all parts of their sentence and have not committed felony, sexual assault, or murder. That is a huge mostly black and Latino section of our population that have been kept from voting and it would be the largest voter enfranchisement since women got the right to vote. I think it is important that we honor the sacrifices people have made and how powerful it is to be able to vote. There are people all over the world who have little to no say over what happens in their lives and we do. I just really hope people go vote.