Youth in Ann Arbor are fired up about aggressive activity by Immigration, Customs and Enforcement agents. Two Pioneer High School seniors, Amory Zhou-Kourvo and Yara Ajin, are spearheading efforts to engage their peers in resisting recent actions undertaken against local immigrants. They tell stories about studying at protests and doing homework at planning meetings, and both were recently galvanized by the detention of schoolmates’ parents to become two of the most prominent youth activists in Ann Arbor.
Despite his passions, Zhou-Kourvo admits he doesn’t plan on getting everything he wants. “I’m pretty radically left, so my long-term goals are not going to happen in my lifetime,” he says.
His desire to be politically active began in elementary school when he was told he couldn’t play soccer because he was a girl, but the 2016 election definitely spurred him to a new level of activism. It started in a church basement at a meeting for Stop Trump Ann Arbor that featured folding chairs and a slide show. It was there he learned about a rapid response team that could be alerted through mass texts and sparked to action by carpools.
“If you see or hear about an ICE raid, you call our number and Jessica Prozinsky, who runs the rapid response team, will send a mass text to everybody who’s on the list and say ‘rapid response alert, you have to come to this location because they’re trying to take somebody away,’ Zhou-Kourvo explains. “The idea is that we’re going to be human shields against police and ICE.”
It was at that same meeting that Zhou-Kourvo first asserted his determination to lead after he responded to someone in the audience who accused the speakers of exaggerating while describing deportations.
“Their phrasing of the issues was ‘ICE is kidnapping our people.’ I wouldn’t call that hyperbole. I’d say that’s accurate. I kind of responded to her and said ‘Hey, look, it’s not your responsibility to reveal your identity to me but for some people, perhaps not you, are being kidnapping from their houses.’”
‘Leadership is service’
Zhou-Kourvo’s speaking up despite being the youngest in a room full of people he didn’t know, caught the attention of Stop Trump Ann Arbor’s leaders, and they recruited him to work alongside them. For Zhou-Kourvo, being a leader means being of service.
“Leadership is service, primarily. In any sort of context. Not just in activism. To me, being a leader of Stop Trump Ann Arbor means showing up to things, being willing to devote your time to pass out flyers, to stand up and lead chants, to share something, to make phone calls, to basically just show up and be consistent in your work.”
So far, Zhou-Kourvo has worked on a myriad of events with Stop Trump Ann Arbor. He marched for Yousef Ajin – an Ann Arbor father and long-time resident who was detained in January – at his court hearing in Detroit, and spoke on behalf of another immigrant who couldn’t be present, for legal and safety reasons, at the Ann Arbor Immigrants March. He’s also helped organize nearly a dozen protests in support of Jose Luis Sanchez-Ronquillo, another Ann Arbor father who’s been detained and has been at risk of deportation for months.
“Right now we’re working on Kamiran Taymour’s case,” Zhou-Kourvo says. “He is one of the people who got picked up in Detroit recently with all the Iraqi-Chaldeans. He is an Ann Arbor resident so we’re trying to work on his case and start organizing around him. What we basically do is isolate these cases as they happen with Ann Arbor residents and we focus on them and have a lot of organizing around them. Historically, it’s worked so far. We have high hopes for Jose Luis Sanchez-Ronquillo’s case too.”
Inspired to help others
While Zhou-Kourvo has been politically active since elementary school, Yara Ajin is just starting. In February, when Ajin’s father was detained for deportation, he was released with the help of community organizing. She was inspired by the way the youth community rallied around her family and, since then, she has been working to help other families going through similar situations.
“I want people to remember me for helping other families,” she says, “instead of focusing on mine. There are other people to worry about.”
This April, when Sanchez-Ronquillo was targeted for deportation, Ajin used her voice and experience to share his story.
“Sometimes, I don’t really know what I’m doing,” she says. “I’m just trying to help. When they ask me to speak I have to say something inspirational, and I’m not that much of an inspirational person. I didn’t really expect to be a leader but it just kind of happened.”
Despite her initial surprise at becoming so deeply involved,
Ajin has found a place in social justice.
“Every time I go to a rally I think, okay, this is probably what I want to do for the rest of my life,” she says. “It’s like an adrenaline rush everytime you go. There’s always the chance of getting arrested. That almost happened last time I went to a rally. It’s kind of scary, but Martin Luther King got arrested and he made a change. If I get arrested, maybe I’ll also be able to make a change. Making an impact like Martin Luther King is kind of our main goal. Last time we had to chant at the rally, and one of our chants was ‘Immigrants are here to stay, we will fight like MLK.’”
With what she’s learned from her leadership position, Ajin is working on organizing a social justice group at Pioneer High School called Movement For Justice. “We’re gonna do more rallies and flyers and posters and maybe even walk-outs if stuff gets even worse,” she says. “Angry youth is the best way to make a change.”