Masouna Kochaji is a Communications Coordinator at IRUSA. She recently attending Alternative Spring Break in Flint, MI and shares her experience with ReliefLab.
In early March, I was sent to Flint, Michigan to accompany Howard University students on an alternative Spring Break. Having only heard stories of the conditions in Flint, I was anxious to see what the situation would be. The Howard students would be spending an entire week at various schools in Flint, and work with local students and staff in the classroom. While the students were going to support the community for a week, I’d only be on this trip for two days…and what I saw in those two days dramatically changed my perspective on Flint, Michigan.
I woke up early on Monday morning, packed the camera gear, and walked outside to begin the hour long drive to Flint. The midwest welcomed me with freezing temperatures and snow. Coming from Virginia, where flurries would close schools, I was concerned the snow would impact the work planned for today. I began my trek through the snow and eventually ended up in Flint. The first school I arrived at was a local high school. I walked down the slushy sidewalk to the front door, and observed the school…it seemed like any other school from the outside. I walked in and met with school security to take me to the meeting room for Howard students. As we walked down the hallway I asked the gentleman if this snow would get the students an early departure, and the only reply he could muster up was laughter. Through a few chuckles he managed to say that the only time schools in Flint close, are when the busses stop working. Already I could see, the folks in Flint meant business and a few inches of snow would be no obstacle.
A few rows of lockers later, I ended up in a dark hallway. The room at the end of the hall was loud and as we entered it, I was struck with lots of IRUSA blue. The Howard students strutting Islamic Relief USA t-shirts were actively discussing college and time management strategies with a classroom of high school students. I spent the remainder of that day following the students around and observing different classes. As the Howard students talked with the Flint students, it was clear Flint, Michigan presented obstacles. These students lack access to clean drinking water, the school system is facing budget cuts, and teachers are exhausted. Many of the classrooms had a lack of energy, an overall lack of motivation, and it was saddening to see that. I spoke with teachers and counselors that day who are so devoted to the success of each and every student. They spend countless hours in and outside of the classroom trying to be the backbone and support to give each student hope to make it beyond Flint.
On Day 2 the snow had stopped, but it was still freezing. Today I was set to meet with the team at an elementary school. This was the most emotional part of my trip. I walked past water fountains with signs on them saying “do not use until further notice”, reminding me that Flint still has a water crisis. Poverty is everywhere in Flint, but the community is rich. They are hopeful and passionate. I met with a school supervisor that puts his all into supporting the youth at his school every singly day. These children are faced with challenges that go beyond finding clean drinking water. They are youth of a “crack baby” generation. I noticed many substitute teachers at the high school the day prior, and the administrator I met today explained the reasoning behind that. With budget cuts in Flint, teachers are leaving. When teachers leave, substitutes have to fill their place. With under qualified subs, they are overwhelmed with the needs of the students and end up leaving within days of being in the classroom. With such a high turnover rate for subs, students are left with inconsistencies in their education which deepens the issues.
Overall by the close of Day 2, I had met countless students and teachers. The high school students were tired, but the elementary students still had a light of hope and passion inside them. It is that light that so many administrators and teachers are trying to preserve. Flint is a community of individuals facing the same issues. A water crisis that should not exist. Many residents feel ignored by other communities so they are support themselves. They work together to overcome the water issues, the poverty, and the limited resources. The community is fighting to offer their youth a fighting chance at more, trying to ensure their success despite all the obstacles thrown their way. Flint is strong, and insha’Allah they’ll continue to overcome.