A Rhodes Scholar speaks out

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An academic star of Haitian descent responds to Trump's anti-immigrant remarks


  • Thamara Jean, awarded the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, will head to Oxford in the fall. Photo courtesy of Thamara Jean

  • Thamara Jean (center) with her parents, GraceArnauld(left) and Vital Jean (right). Photo courtesty of Thamara Jean

  • Thamara Jean (left) has been politically engaged at Hunter. Photo courtesy of Thamara Jean

Thamara Jean is a regular at Good Shepherd Baptist Church in Brooklyn, where she helps her family at the church all day every Sunday. For the 22-year-old political science major at Hunter College — who in November became the first Hunter student to be awarded the highly-selective Rhodes Scholarship — her family and the Haitian community she belongs to come first.

When President Trump recently made derogatory remarks about immigrants from certain countries and singled out Haiti, it hit those like Thamara Jean at the heart: “It intensifies when the insults are so targeted towards a community that you specifically belong to,” she says.

“There are people who come to this country who don't necessarily become doctors, lawyers and engineers,” Jean adds. “They might just be nurses, janitors, and sanitation workers. But those people, who are just dignified, humble, good, tax-paying citizens also deserve just as much as a right and a place in this country as any exceptional immigrant ... ”

At Thamara Jean's church, whose congregation is mostly of West Indian origin, Trump's comments were not surprising “considering whom they came from” and “given the general continued disappointment with his immigration policies,” Jean says.

Instead, the general sentiment among Jean's strong Haitian community, whom she calls “her extended family,” was one of “focusing on a message of love, about uplifting and supporting the community rather than his hate,” she says calmly. But she also mentions the energizing power of the protests held in New York City and elsewhere immediately after Trump's remarks.

Jean was born in Brooklyn, the youngest of three children. She finished Edward R. Murrow High School in Midwood. Her parents are Haitian immigrants who arrived in the U.S. separately in the 80s and the 90s. Her mother, Grace, is a nurse, and her father, Vital, is the groundskeeper at a synagogue near Prospect Park. Without the resources to own or rent their own building, the church that the Jean family attends borrows space from the synagogue to conduct services.

“My family is physically detached from the home they came from, but when you get a large community ... you have the chance to recreate some of your culture here in the city,” Jean says. She herself hasn't been to Haiti yet, but hopes to go one day.

The number of Haitians in the U.S. has reached 676,000 according to the 2015 census. They are primarily issued visas as low-skill seasonal workers in agriculture and other industries.

Unsurprisingly, when asked about her heroes, Jean says: “The honest answer would be my parents (and anyone like them) who made a blind but brave sacrifice to leave everything and build a life somewhere new and foreign. I think that takes a lot of courage that people often don't focus on.”

Jean's family has been living the American Dream: Her brother will soon become a physiotherapist. Her sister is with her husband who is serving in the Navy base in Guam.

Jean, who has been politically engaged at Hunter, explains that frustration with the current system has always been the main motivation behind her activism and intellectual curiosity. In one of the earlier projects she worked on at Hunter, Generation Citizen, she taught a civics curriculum to youngsters and people who don't traditionally have access to government, emphasizing the “stakes of getting involved in their local and even national politics” early on to improve their community on issues like affordable housing.

She has also advocated for the Equal Rights Movement. Her startling realization as a political science student that her “identity as a woman isn't protected under federal law” motivated her to join the movement. Through a campaign, she and other local activists reached out to students outside New York City, in Washington D.C., Arizona and Mississippi.

In 2014, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests across the nation, Jean started noticing the gap between Western political thinking and the philosophy that empowered protesters on the ground. For her junior thesis at Hunter, she asked why “all the qualities that make us American seem to fall short when we came to discussing black citizens.”

These days, the Hunter senior has focused her attention on the legal ramifications of another Trump administration decision closely related to her community: the day after she won the Rhodes Scholarship, the Department of Homeland Security announced that along with Sudanese, Yemenis and Salvadorans, nearly 59,000 Haitian immigrants, who were allowed to stay in the US after a massive earthquake hit their home country in 2010, would lose their temporary protected status (TPS) in the next 18 months unless they applied for extended residency or left the U.S.

“I immediately thought of the kids especially who came here eight years ago who have spent the majority of their lives in this country,” Jean says. “It's upsetting to think how many stories like mine are potentially being upended, because now these children are being sent back to a place where ... they may not have the best shot in life.”

The prestigious Rhodes Scholarship is an international post-graduate award to study at the University of Oxford in England. Jean's plan is to study political theory at Oxford, where she will be headed this fall after graduating from Hunter. She may then pursue a Ph.D., depending on the circumstances, and hopes to be politically engaged through a career in politics or the non-profit sector.

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