Asylum Seeker from Zambia Fights to Compete in Poetry Contest

Apr 19, 2018

A student from from Portland's Deering High School took his case against the National Endowment for the Arts to a federal judge in Portland Wednesday.

Attorneys representing Allan Monga argued that federal rules barring from him competing in a national poetry competition because of his immigration status are discriminatory.

When 19-year-old Allan Monga arrived in Portland as an asylum seeker from his native country of Zambia last summer, he spent the first three months living in a local teen shelter.

"It was really hard for me,” says Monga.“I didn't really know anyone. And it was hard to trust anyone.”

By fall, Monga had enrolled at Portland's Deering High School, and had discovered poetry. He says he began to find his voice in a new, unfamiliar home. This year he advanced to the state finals of Maine's Poetry Out Loud competition, reciting W.E.B. Du Bois' 1907 work, "The Song of the Smoke."

“I am the Smoke King! I am black! I am darkening with song, I am hearkening to wrong!” Monga bellows in the performance, puffing out his chest as he enunciates each syllable.

“Once I'm reciting that poem, it's like, ‘Hey! Look at me! I am the Smoke King!’” Monga says. “You have to grab everyone's attention. Everyone has to listen to you...I feel like I'm in a position of authority and power. And everyone is listening.”

Monga won the state competition. Yet, because of his status as an asylum-seeker, he wasn't classified as a "U.S. citizen or permanent resident," making him ineligible to perform in the national finals, according to the rules laid out by the event sponsors, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Poetry Foundation.

Monga is challenging that decision. On Wednesday, his lawyers argued in front of a federal judge in Portland that the event's rules discriminate against Monga. Monga says the rules hurt him and other students in similar situations.

"And if you cannot have them in this competition because they don't have the proper legal status in the U.S., it's just discrimination in some way," he says.

Monga's attorneys argued that the event's rules violate federal civil rights laws, and that because Poetry Out Loud excludes asylum-seekers from its national and state competitions, the NEA is, in effect, taking away Monga's right to an educational opportunity.

"What this NEA rule would do is to say that one class of students can go as far as they can go, based on their merit and talent," says Attorney Bruce Smith, one of the lawyers representing Monga in the case. "But another classification of student, that Allan is in, will be blocked and stopped and be denied that opportunity. I don't see how anybody can look at that and say that's fair or reasonable."

However, the National Endowment for the Arts says its eligibility rules are on firm legal ground.

During the hearing, U.S. District Judge John Woodcock questioned what "national interest" would compel the federal agency to restrict asylum seekers from participating in a poetry competition.

Attorney Rachael Westmoreland, representing the NEA, said that the agency is provided with limited funding from Congress and is allowed to put constraints on what it does with that funding and who's eligible. She pointed to several other longstanding federal programs with similar eligibility rules, including scholarships from the National Science Foundation.

Westmoreland also raised concerns that if Monga were to win his legal challenge, and participate in this year's National Finals, it could potentially open the doors for other students in similar circumstances to challenge the agency's rules. A lawyer for the Poetry Foundation, meanwhile, argued that because his organization doesn't receive federal funds, it's not subject to the same anti-discrimination laws as the NEA.

Judge Woodcock indicated that the case would be decided by Friday. And in the meantime, Monga says he'll keep practicing for the Poetry Out Loud National Finals, which begin Monday in Washington, D.C.

Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.