Thousands of French students blockaded high schools across Paris suburbs for two days to protest the humiliating deportation of a 15-year-old Roma school girl, Leonarda Dibrani, last week.
On October 9th, French authorities detained Leonarda aboard a school bus in front of 40 classmates. Her teacher, who has known Leonarda since she was 4 years old, held the weeping teenager in her arms and explained to her what was happening. She then convinced the police to put Leonarda into the police car out of sight of her classmates. Leonarda was deported along with her mother and siblings back to Kosovo on the same day.
Students soon took to the streets to protest Leonarda’s deportation and condemn the government’s systemic mistreatment of people like the Dibranis who are of Roma-origin, or so-called Gypsies. The organizers also called for equal education for all students (regardless of nationality) and waved banners that read, “Education must be without borders.”
In Kosovo, Leonarda told reporters, “I felt very bad and was ashamed in front of my friends, because they started asking me ‘Who did you kill that the police are looking for you?’ I did not know where I was and what was going on and I started crying.”
She said, “My home is in France. I don’t speak the language here and I don’t know anyone. I just want to go back to France and forget everything that happened.”
After the intense public outcry, French President Francois Hollande offered a deportation stay to Leonarda so that she could finish her studies — but without her family.
Protesters are also calling for the resignation of Socialist Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who has perpetuated hostility against Roma immigrants like the Dibranis. Valls has called Romas “inherently different” and incapable of assimilating into French society. According to one poll, 77 percent of French voters agree with Valls.
Like their French peers, young Americans are calling attention to unfair treatment of immigrants in the U.S. From coast to coast, American students are rallying for their undocumented friends at colleges like University of California at Santa Cruz, Notre Dame, and the University of Florida. Members of the student body governments at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Colorado-Boulder have also thrown their support for granting in-state tuition to undocumented students. At UNC-Chapel Hill, the students even came up with the slogan “one state, one rate.” These youth movements seem to be working; the University of Michigan recently opened financial aid to undocumented immigrants after widespread student outcry.
Research shows young people tend to be more open-minded about immigrant rights. A Pew poll found that 78 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 support legal status for undocumented immigrants, far more than older people do. Large majorities of young people also support allowing legal immigrants to vote in local elections, believe the government should focus on integrating undocumented immigrants into American society, and have more positive attitudes toward minorities in general.