The Littlest President (NJSLC Series, No.2)

This blog post is the second in a series written by Georgetown participants in the National Jesuit Student Leadership Conference (NJSLC), which was held at Regis University in Denver, Colorado in July 2016. NJSLC, a five day conference for all 28 Jesuit universities in the U.S., brings student leaders together to discuss relevant student-life issues and build stronger leadership skills to better serve their institutions in the Jesuit tradition.

Georgetown University will host NJSLC 2017 this July.

“When I grow and get bigger, I want to be President.”

While these are words that many Hoyas have said at different points in their lives – and words that one Hoya has achieved, this time it was not a Georgetown student speaking. In an effort to respect her privacy, I will call the speaker Lucy. Lucy is a seven year-old refugee carrying the baggage of growing up as one of the oppressed minority within a war-torn country in Africa. She wore a burka the entire day that we spent together despite the excruciating Colorado heat. But you wouldn’t know that she was anything different than I was at her age when you first meet her. What you would know is that she has a giant smile, she runs everywhere she goes, and she wants to be President of the United States. Lucy is part of a program called Growing Colorado Kids which supports a mélange of refugee children as they work to plant and grow a garden together, building confidence and interpersonal relationships along the way. Founder Denise explained that the program not only sought to help put food on the tables of refugee families in Colorado but to help heal a disconnect that formed after several years in the United States. The parents of the kids often come from agricultural societies, and when they arrive here their kids more quickly assimilate to American life and the rich opportunity that comes along with it. That means that these children never come to experience the same hard work and connection to the land as their parents. In many ways, this program seeks to connect the kids to their new community here in the United States and provide food for them and their families while also reinforcing their cultural history and an understanding of their parents’ experiences. A win-win situation if there ever was one.

I got the chance to work with Lucy and several other young refugees as my small group from the National Jesuit Student Leadership Conference set out for a day of service in our host city of Denver. Just outside of the Denver city limits we all arrived at a small farm – the home of founders Denise and Chris as well as their dog, a mini cow named Gillespie, several goats, a horse, a variety of chickens, and a slightly irritable goose. Shortly after the arrival of our NJSLC team, a van full of kids arrived and smiles spread across the faces of everyone there. It is easy to tell that Denise has spent a great deal of time teaching the kids some of the basic principles of gardening, in addition to interpersonal skills, as she insisted that each kid introduce themselves to our team, shaking hands and holding eye contact. We were there to work together.

Lucy was the youngest of the kids and a little bit shy but my hand shot up when Denise asked who would like to be on her team for the day. I knew this little girl had a lot to teach me and she was so darn cute, too. So we set to work harvesting seeds from their wildflower garden. She slowly but surely began to open up and tell myself and a volunteer from Santa Clara University, one of our sister Jesuit schools in California, a little bit about herself and her friends at school. She was quiet for a few moments before she shifted the conversation to ask us what we wanted to be when we got bigger. I’m not sure that we answered her question because there was a huge smile spreading across her face as she declared that she was going to be President someday. She told us that she couldn’t wait for Hillary to be President because Trump was just mean and that someday she wanted it to be her that was up there running for the Presidency. I don’t know how long her family has been in the United States, or if she is even a US Citizen, but this little girl won both my heart and my vote that day.

Lucy, much like the saint of the same name in the Catholic tradition, was a bright light in what has been a confusing and difficult time for refugees in the United States. With the Governor of my own state declaring that Iowa would accept no refugees during the crisis in Syria, I can’t help but wish that he could meet this little seven year-old. I wish that many of our country’s leaders could have sat where I sat during the National Jesuit Student Leadership Conference because it seems to me that there has never been a greater need for our Jesuit values. One of the speakers at a breakout session I attended said something that I think is truly applicable here, “If you are trying to save me, then leave me, but if your liberation is tied up with mine then let’s fight for justice together.” This little refugee reminded me that it might not be the responsibility of the United States to swoop in and end conflict in all regions of the world, but we all have a stake in a more peaceful world where a kid can grow up anywhere and know what opportunity and a full stomach feel like.

Written by Makayla KesselF’18