Juhel Miah, barred entry to the US, is part of our school family. We will defend him
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British Muslim teacher denied US entry: ‘I felt powerless’
For many of us of a certain age, a school trip evokes memories of time spent at a local zoo or theme park towards the end of the academic year. Nowadays, visits have become a lot more adventurous. And for the pupils of Llangatwg community school, in Neath near Swansea, where I am headteacher, the opportunity to visit both Iceland and New York earlier this month was for some a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Visits such as this require thought and planning. Pupils are excited and parents are keen to encourage their children to experience what the world has to offer. Teachers, however, are focused on getting everything right. The itinerary, travel arrangements, pupils’ wellbeing and of course, staffing, are considerations that need meticulous planning.
Our visit was coordinated by a teacher with a wealth of experience in arranging foreign trips. Juhel Miah, a maths teacher with two years’ experience under his belt, was asked to accompany the trip. Juhel, a Swansea-born UK citizen whose parents originate from Bangladesh, is considered by all to be an outstanding teacher who has shone from the very start of his employment. A first-class honours maths graduate, Juhel is a young teacher who enthuses the pupils he teaches with his positivity and broad smile.
The school party left on Wednesday for Gatwick and all was well. Seeing the telephone number of the party leader flash up on my phone on Thursday morning was unremarkable yet also unexpected. What was more unexpected was being told that Juhel had been asked to leave the plane in Reykjavik as his authorisation to fly had been overturned. Here was a young man, charged with the important task of looking after a group of schoolchildren, being told he had to leave them, with no reason given.
The following 24 hours were very traumatic for Juhel: deserted in a foreign country, with vouchers to sleep overnight in a hotel that he described as “horrendous”. Following advice, he turned up the next day at the US embassy only to be left on the doorstep in the sweeping rain and then be told to phone Esta, the visa body for the US.
The experience itself was terrible, but more infuriating is the fact that no explanation has yet been given by the American authorities. Following the debacle of Trump’s failed attempt to ban people from certain Muslim countries entering the US, is this event an example of the authorities randomly selecting Muslims and preventing them from entering the US?
Some might see this as just a case of someone being refused entry into a foreign country – hardly a unique event. But as a historian I must question this viewpoint. Trump has views that at best could be described as xenophobic. His stereotyping of Muslims as terrorists is a threat to all of us, if left unchallenged.
We might be getting weary of hearing about the Trump administration, but that is not to say we should get used to what it does or what it appears to stand for. Young people are impressionable and my pupils have, in my opinion, witnessed an act of discrimination.
The outpouring of empathy we have received from around the world has only intensified our bafflement at what Juhel endured. As one Washington state elementary teacher who wrote to us put it: “I cannot express the depth of my concern, embarrassment, and contempt for my country’s behaviour.” It is currently half-term, but we have had countless messages of support from children, parents and the wider community. The humility and compassion displayed by the vast majority of those who have been in contact reassures me that society is resolute in standing up to bigotry. Trump may be spinning his own web of “fake news”, but most decent people can see beyond this, including the students in my school.
But what impact does an event like this have on the views of people? Well history tells us quite clearly. Look at the drip-drip effect of propaganda in Germany in the 1930s. Only time will tell quite how worrying Trump’s attitudes towards immigration and Islam will be. What I do know is that Juhel is part of a family, our school family. And, like any family, we stick up for each other, and we will get answers as to why this happened.