A student at Portland's Deering High School has filed a lawsuit against the National Endowment for the Arts over its decision to ban him from competing in a national poetry competition because of his status as an asylum seeker.
Deering High School Junior Allan Monga recited three poems in last month's state Poetry Out Loud competition. This one, "The Song of the Smoke" first published by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1907, is an affirmation of black pride.
Monga took first place, an impressive achievement, made even more impressive by the fact that Monga immigrated to Maine less than a year ago, as an asylum seeker from Zambia.
Monga enrolled at Deering soon after he arrived. And once at school, he says he discovered his love of poetry. With some early morning coaching from teachers, he also found he had a knack for interpreting them.
"When I'm reading a poem, or trying to memorize a poem, I try to think about what the poet was thinking when trying to write the poem," he says. "I know it sounds complicated, but that that's what I try to think. What was going through his head. And I just try, as much as I can, to bring the poem to life.”
Yet even though Monga won the state Poetry Out Loud contest, he says he's been banned from entering the national competition later this month in Washington D.C. That's because of his current immigration status as an asylum seeker. Under the rules of the contest, competitors must be "U.S. citizens or permanent residents" and they need to verify their eligibility. Monga has a social security number and work permit, but has yet to receive a green card.
He says he can't understand why he shouldn't be allowed to compete.
"Honestly, I felt discriminated against," Monga says. "Because I think I should be given an equal opportunity as any other kid."
Local officials, including Congresswoman Chellie Pingree and the Portland legislative delegation, have expressed their support for Monga and they're asking the NEA to reconsider. Portland Public Schools have also joined the lawsuit.
Superintendent Xavier Botana says the district is standing beside Monga on the issue.
"We want him to have the opportunity to show the world everything that he's able to do,” Botana says.
Attorneys for Monga say they hope to get a hearing in front of a federal judge next week. They don't have a lot of time. The Poetry Out Loud National Finals begin April 23. A spokesperson for the National Endowment for the Arts says the agency won't comment on pending cases. The National Poetry Foundation didn't return a request for comment.