Incomer Magazine

An Ode to Inclusivity: Allan Monga wins access for asylum seekers in national poetry competition

Nothing has stood up better through the ages than the wonders of humans expressing themselves through their passion; for without it, what makes our existence worth living? Passion is a universal emotion, expressed far beyond any borders we may establish across land masses. 

“One of my biggest dreams as a kid was flying; I’ve always dreamed of traveling the world. I absolutely love the airport and it just makes me feel so happy being there!”

Allan Monga smiles over this memory as he shares his story of life as a poet, public speaker, and a man of many dreams.

In 2017, Monga’s childhood dream shined bright in his mind as he flew out from Zambia to pursue an education here in Portland. He first met his mentor, Maxwell Chikuta, and before long he enrolled in Deering High School for his junior year. 

“One of the biggest things that surprised me was the use of laptops in school! Back at home, we weren’t allowed to have any technology in the classroom,” says Monga. “When they told me I was getting a Chromebook for classes, I kept thinking, ‘What’s a Chromebook, what kind of textbook is this?’ Once I started school with it, I found it very helpful in my studies. I love it!”

Despite describing himself as a shy person, Allan first got involved in poetry when a teacher from his school asked him to consider the poetry competition, which would involve a public performance of his work.

“I remember her coming up to me once and mentioning this competition,” he says, “but I told her I didn’t have any experience in public speaking or poetry. I had no idea what they were about. She told me to go home, watch some videos online for myself, and to think it over. So I did that and, honestly, it was one of the coolest things I ever got to see online! I remember being drawn to what was being spoken and fell in love with the words, the way [poetry] connects to you, and the way it moves the audience. I went up to her a few days later and said, ‘I’m in!’”

What started out as an enriching experience in the arts, however, soon turned political, after Monga won the local round, but was then barred from competing at the national level due to his status as an asylum seeker, in 2018. Together with family, friends, and the support of Portland Public Schools, Monga filed a lawsuit against the National Endowments for the Arts, challenging the citizenship policy on the basis of discrimination. Allan fought not only for his own right to compete; he fought for future immigrants destined to step where he stood.

“I’m not the only immigrant competing in these competitions,” Monga says. “There are many kids in Deering High School and other schools in Portland who come from all over the world with a voice that deserves to be heard. I wanted to help give equal opportunity for all kids to be heard.” 

The federal judge ruled in Monga’s favor and the NEA changed their policy to allow all students in the competition to represent their schools, regardless of their citizenship status. Even though he didn’t qualify for the final round, Monga recited two poems at nationals, and history was made.

“Anything is possible” are Monga’s words for every future asylum seeker who finds themself in his footsteps. He plans to attend the University of Southern Maine this fall and major in musical theater. When asked where he sees himself in five years, Monga smiles and says, “The possibilities are endless for me; I want to learn so many new things, different skills. I’m excited to see what happens!”

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