There was a time when MEA member Gale Tosto was afraid to speak up about injustice. But two weeks ago, when devastating U.S. immigration policies reached into her first-grade classroom in Berkley, Tosto and a parent/teacher/friend did more than raise their voices.
They created a moving video, “Mohammed’s Last Day,” to document the love, kindness, and hopefulness – amid confusion – of six-year-olds saying goodbye to their good friend on short notice. The video has more than 24,000 views on Facebook.
“I’ve grown to not be as afraid over time in general, but this especially hit home for me,” the 11-year teaching veteran said. “Even my three-year-old son said to me, ‘Why does he have to go, Mama?’”
Mohammed is a first grader and U.S. citizen forced to move to his parents’ native Saudi Arabia, although his father had earned a bachelor’s degree at University of Kentucky and just completed a master’s degree at Wayne State University.
The family was denied the opportunity to stay and continue pursuing their dream of a job and citizenship for Mohammed’s parents, who had been living in the U.S. on a student visa and were seeking a green card to allow the father to accept work related to his studies, Tosto said.
The boy’s mother approached the teacher on Jan. 30 with the emotional news that the family, which includes Mohammed’s American-born younger sister, was being forced to leave on Feb. 3. His last day at school was Feb. 2.
The story of Mohammed’s family has played out amid a shift in U.S. immigration policy under the Trump administration, which has targeted all undocumented immigrants for arrest or deportation instead of focusing on recent border crossers or those with criminal convictions as in the past.
“It’s so sad that this is where we are as a country,” Tosto said. “This is not an issue of politics; it’s about treating people with kindness.”
Later that day, Tosto couldn’t hide her sadness from her toddler son and six-year-old daughter when she went home.
“My daughter was like, ‘We need to talk to the president! Who do we talk to – the mayor?’ And I thought, well, I don’t know how to exactly fix this problem, but here’s what we can do. We can be kind and accepting, and we can work really hard on sharing Mohammed’s story.”
Mohammed had attended Pettengill Elementary School since kindergarten, and he was known by everyone – even teachers he never had, Tosto said. He stands out from a crowd for his happy, carefree, kind spirit, she added.
“He never took anything negatively,” Tosto said. “He was silly at the right times. He was such a good friend, always helping others. He loved being here, and everything made him excited and happy.”
In preparation for Mohammed’s “send-off,” Tosto had each of her students write one page for a memory book about him. The class studied maps and did vocabulary work on words that related to love and memories of Mohammed.
At the party, attended by Mohammed’s little sister and parents, the boy was presented with two books in keeping with the school mascot – a penguin – and Tosto’s class motto: I believe I can fly. One book was titled, The Penguin Who Wanted to Fly.
“I admire Mohammed’s courage, because not one time did he break,” Tosto said. “I don’t know how he did that; I was a mess on some of those days.”
When Mohammed was asked about his future plans, Tosto said, “His courage was just amazing to me. He said, ‘I will come back when I am 18, and I will bring my family. I will be OK.’ To hear a six-year-old child say that…”
Remembering the day brings back emotions for Tosto. She hopes the beauty and simplicity of the children’s love for each other can cut through political rhetoric. A message displayed at the end of the video asks viewers moved by the story to contact lawmakers and advocate for fair and reasonable immigration policies.
Tosto’s friend Amanda Davies – a parent of one of Tosto’s first graders and a Plymouth-Canton teacher and MEA member – helped her film, edit, and post the final product. Parents gave permission to have their children in the video, and the community response has been positive, Tosto says.
“The whole issue keeps coming back to the idea that we are all people, and we should be treated as such,” Tosto said. “This is not what our country was founded on.”