Too young to vote, students at Allen Village School in Westport hardly can believe what they’ve been hearing grown-up America say.
About people like them, with immigrant ties.
Tenth-grader Michelle Santellano, seated in a conference room with four other teens sharing concerns, spent her life adopting the country’s ways and learning its values. “I never saw myself as different.”
Now with the 2016 election returns long tallied and no easing of ethnic tensions in view, the classmates feel that a nation with Donald Trump at the helm sees them as different.
“I feel I’m looked down upon,” in Santellano’s words.
She was brought into the United States as the 1-year-old child of undocumented parents. Now the girl worries that something might happen to keep her from staying and attending college.
Among kids with an immigrant past — and they should know that nearly all Americans have such a past — fears and anxieties are spreading, say area counselors and family therapists.
How are impressionable young minds processing this national argument over borders, travel bans, security, foreign terrorists, rapists and a wall? How do youngsters react to rumors and rage on social media?
And how are adults helping them understand?
Meet one all-American family, the Banyalmarjehs.
In south Kansas City, father Fadi and mother Jaime raise horses behind their home. They’ve also raised six children, all born in the United States, three now in college.
Born in Syria, Fadi Banyalmarjeh came to America for higher education in 1988 and married a quick-witted Kansas City woman of German descent. She fell in love with his Islamic faith, and he obtained citizenship in 1993.
The whole time Fadi Banyalmarjeh has called this city home. Not once, he says, has he heard fellow residents say to his face or behind his back anything disparaging of his religion or challenging his reasons for being here.
“Kansas City is very open-minded,” he said.
The nation as a whole? President Trump’s victory came as a jolt. And sometimes Banyalmarjeh finds cable news too distressing for him, to say nothing of its effects on the youngest boys, ages 12 and 14.
But what he tells them about their country hasn’t changed over the years.
“The entire world looks up to America and its freedoms,” he says. “Yet every minority group that’s come here went through this kind of struggle. The Irish, Germans, Catholics, Jews — they all had to fight to earn their rights” to be accepted.
With each struggle, the country ultimately moved forward, not backward. And that’s why the Banyalmarjehs should feel privileged they’re here, the kids are told.
Said son Ali, the 12-year-old: “On a scale of 10, I’d give the U.S. a 9. Every place has its ups and downs.”
For his part, the president has stressed that legal immigrants are to be admired. And he voices no issue with Muslims who aren’t “radical Islamic terrorists.”
On Jan. 30, just three days after the president signed an order temporarily barring travel into the U.S. by refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, a family in Kansas City, Kan., decided it was time to start planning their return to Mexico.
The undocumented parents pulled their ninth-grade son out of school so he could earn money to help save for their eventual exit, an official said.
“Obviously, we tried to talk them out of it,” said spokesman David Smith of the Kansas City, Kan., school district, where 45 percent of students are English-language learners. “But we really can’t make promises as to what will happen down the road.
“What makes these issues hard with kids is that we tell them from an early age, ‘If you do all these things, if you learn and apply yourselves, you’ll succeed.’ You’re selling them the American dream.
“Then they start asking, ‘Is that really true?’ ”
On Friday, a warning from Mexico heightened fears. The nation advised its citizens living in the U.S. to “take precautions” and remain in contact with consular officials. The warning came after an undocumented mother in Phoenix was deported following a routine visit with U.S. immigration authorities.
Anecdotes offered up by local agencies that serve immigrant families paint a troubling mosaic of youngsters afraid of the possibilities they hear from friends and glean from social media:
▪ At the Mattie Rhodes Center — providing mental-health services to many recent or first-generation immigrants on both sides of the state line — chief executive John Fierro knows of young ones panicking when a parent works unusually late.
“Kids are coming home and asking, ‘Where’s Dad? ... Where’s Dad?’ They’re on pins and needles,” said Fierro, who also sits on the Kansas City Public Schools board. “Can you imagine some child thinking, ‘What if my parents aren’t there tonight?’ How can they concentrate on schooling?”
▪ At Penuel Counseling in Independence, multilingual counselor Daylin Rodriguez Cesar hears at least one 4-year-old asking: “Mom, are you Mexican? What’s that — do we have to go?”
▪ In the Northland, where many Muslim refugees are resettled, family therapist Lucy Roldán Smith, herself the daughter of a Latina immigrant, said, “I think there’s real fear all across the groups ... even though (immigration) laws have not changed.
“Social media,” she remarked. “That’s the worst.”
Still, calm seems to prevail at least among younger pupils — many of them refugees — at Kansas City International Academy, said Assistant Superintendent David Leone.
Only a few have reached their teens at the K-8 school. “They don’t really react as much as older kids might,” he said, “and to be perfectly honest, I am surprised.”
Do their parents keep the TVs off? Are they extra careful to monitor the kids’ computer use? Do language barriers keep some cocooned from the shouting matches?
Leone thinks the school helps them feel safe.
Every morning, he’s on the intercom greeting pupils with the message: “Be kind and respectful of everyone. Love does work.”
On that Monday, Jan. 30, after Trump signed the travel ban, Leone laid it on extra thick. He added: “Our country needs lots of love. Love, love, love...”
“I may have been overdoing it,” he said. The school didn’t want The Star to ask the kids.
‘He’s a real character’
At Allen Village, a charter school, so-called Dreamers abound. They’re of Mexican descent, brought by parents who settled without proper papers. Most of these students can’t remember living elsewhere.
The Dreamers were provided a legal route by the previous presidential administration to stay at least long enough to complete a college education of their choosing.
But will the current administration allow them? Trump said in December that he would “work something out” for the Dreamers, without offering specifics.
Hopeful words to sophomore Jessi Bautista Espino, but she and other students will wait and see. “He’s a real character, so you don’t know what to expect,” she said.
Allen Village counselors are urging college-bound students to file necessary federal applications.
Santellano’s been told that her request for something called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a policy implemented in 2012, has been “approved but not finalized.” That would defer deportation for renewable two-year periods and makes her eligible for a work permit.
But just filling out the forms made her and classmates nervous about the government having too much information on their families.
Into the conference room walked Filipino immigrant Renz Sycayco, whose family arrived five years ago. The 11th-grader took a seat with the others and cut Trump a break.
“I think he’s saying words many Americans really want to hear,” Sycayco said. “I’m not saying I’m supportive of him, but he’s been elected and people should give him at least six months. Maybe he could make America great.”
No way, said Arianna Ortiz, a junior who has nothing to fret about the president’s immigration ideas. Both she and her parents are U.S.-born, which may explain why she’s the most outspoken teen in the room.
“I think this election was pretty close to 100 percent about race,” she said.
Freshman Anthony Tran, also born American after his mother emigrated from Vietnam: “I was about to say that, too.”
Ortiz: “With this travel ban, (Trump) is talking about refugees and Muslim countries. You never hear him talking about the white male American shooters coming into our schools every month, it seems.
“And to my knowledge, no refugee from Aleppo has made an attack on America. So why is he fixated on people of color?”
(Her father, Manuel Ortiz, voted for Trump. Being a career Navy man, “my job is to support the commander in chief,” he said, but as Dad, he welcomes his daughter’s opinion. “She’s good at debate,” he says.)
‘I know who I am’
A somewhat different vibe is projected by youngsters attending the Islamic School of Greater Kansas City.
All students in the building are born Americans.
Still, two girls — eighth-grader Iqra Talib and seventh-grader Maya Qarini — are increasingly conscious of non-Muslims staring at them because both recently began wearing hijab headscarves.
Some other females are too apprehensive to wear the hijab in public. But these two ask: Rather than staring at them, why not come over and talk?
“We love to explain to people who are curious,” Iqra said.
For Maya, the loose talk about clamping down on Islamic immigrants “I kind of filter out,” she said. “I know who I am. I’m an American, but I’m also a Muslim and will always be.
“As an American, I know my country is tolerant and respects all diversity.”
Instilling respect and setting examples are a major part of the teaching here. “If one of my neighbors saw that my family doesn’t really commit crimes — we’re just like them — they might go to rallies against hating Muslims,” said Younis Turk, son of a Palestinian mother who emigrated.
In one corner of the school, patriotic bunting hangs off the windows of the social studies class taught by Jaime Banyalmarjeh, Fadi’s wife.
On this day, she’s going through the Declaration of Independence. Some students cite parallels between much of the nation’s reaction to the new U.S. president and colonials rising up to King George III.
Last year at a horse-riding event out west, Banyalmarjeh’s son Ali saw a man shouting slurs at his hijab-wearing mother, who was born in Missouri. “Go back!” he yelled. Mom told her kids the man was drunk. Ali, though furious, let it pass.
Far from shying away from the current immigration debate, Ali absorbs all he can: “ 9/11 ? The people involved in that were from United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan. They’re not among the travel ban’s seven Muslim countries, which were not involved in 9/11 or the other big terrorist events.”
He’s in seventh grade.
In teacher Asmaa Albahawi’s fifth-grade class, pupils tend to react to comments by Trump and his supporters in two ways. They get scared, or they laugh.
And will these kids vote as adults? “Yes!” the class shouts.
Doing more as tensions mount
“A Muslim’s Guide to Talking to Children about Acts of Violent Extremism,” updated last year by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, suggests:
▪ “Children will only come to talk to you about difficult topics if you maintain a warm loving relationship with them.”
▪ “Evaluate your own use of media. ... Limit your consumption of the news and social media if it is affecting you negatively.”
▪ “Educate them about the civil rights struggles of other communities.”
▪ “Young children usually don’t need too much information.”
Good parents in immigrant families have always done such things.
But Michael Moore, an Independence counselor who contracts with several charter schools, said educators may want to do more as national tensions mount.
“We sometimes focus ourselves on trying to give kids a good education. But this may be a time to pay closer attention to their mental health,” he said.
And counselor Cesar said we shouldn’t forget non-immigrant youngsters worried about their friends in immigrant families.
For any child who’s done nothing wrong, she said, “just to say we are rooting for you — that’s important.”