2017-02-16 / Letters

City, school officials: embrace diversity

To the editor:

The day after the election, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Chris Indorf arrived at Biddeford Intermediate School for a meeting. Scores of fourth and fifth graders were running, jumping, playing and enjoying their recess. “My eye was drawn to two girls in hijabs playing foursquare. My heart sank, worried for what the new administration might mean for these beautiful children and their families,” he recalled at a recent administrative meeting.

The president’s executive action barring citizens of Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States is a topic of much consternation and debate on both sides of the political aisle. Much has been written about the order’s intent and constitutionality.

Little has been written, however, about the ban’s manifest and latent consequences for our nation’s most valuable and vulnerable asset: our children. We fret over the ban’s impact on our community in general, and our schoolchildren in particular.

Biddeford is, and always has been, a city of immigrants and refugees. The first European visitors came to this Abenaki fishing destination less than a decade after landing at Jamestown. By the mid-18th century thousands of French Canadians migrated to Biddeford to work in the town’s thriving textile mills. For more than a century Biddeford’s French Canadian and Franco Americans endured all manner of discrimination, from disenfranchisement to wage discrimination. Many of the city’s natives know all too well the impact of being marginalized, discriminated against, unwelcome or labeled. In the not-too-distant past Biddeford’s French Catholics were targeted by the Ku Klux Klan and mocked for their ethnic differences. It’s an easily forgotten past; today’s Biddeford is enriched by our forefathers’ gifts, talents, and unique cultural identity.

While Maine is the most homogeneous state in the union, Biddeford is a city that continues to benefit from remarkable diversity. More than half of York County’s English Language Learners attend Biddeford Schools. The district is home to 160 students from nearly 20 countries, including three on the President’s list (we estimate that seven in 10 of our immigrant and refugee families are Muslim). The students that we’ve had the profound honor to meet or visit in their homes have quite simply been some of the strongest, most graceful, resilient and aweinspiring young people we have met in a combined eight decades of work in education. These students enrich our schools, enliven our curriculum, and enhance the quality and diversity of our schools. Their families have a parallel impact on our community.

We simply can not imagine the challenge and uncertainty of being a Muslim in today’s America. Students in kindergarten and high school alike worry if they’ll be able to stay in school, if their grandfather will be able to return from Iraq, or if they can continue to enjoy the liberties that we so often take for granted.

In these times of uncertainty and rancor, our hope that you’ll join us in espousing and modeling the best of our American values. Our diverse citizenry should feel like welcomed threads of a rich and durable tapestry. The youngest and most vulnerable among us just want to be able to play foursquare.

Alan Casavant, mayor Jeremy Ray, superintendent Chris Indorf, assistant superintendent

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