Everyone has the right to education… Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship… (Article 26, Universal Declaration of Human Rights) 

I always remember the feeling in my gut on the first day of school. Heart pounding. Sweaty palms. The anxiety and excitement of a new classroom and new people. This excitement would give way to sheer dread as I realized that once again I would have to explain the origin of my name and answer the complicated question “Where are you from?” As a young refugee whose family moved a lot, I was familiar with the feeling of standing in front of a classroom and trying to explain to all the other 7, or 9, or 13-year-olds what it meant to be a refugee and why I was here instead of where I was from. We were all usually too young to understand international affairs or how politics impacted the day-to-day lives of families across the globe, but I was still ready to give an in-depth explanation of how and what we survived to get to the United States.

Some of these classrooms were easier to transition in to; some I didn’t stay long enough to complete the full transition. Wherever I was, I found comfort in the truth that I deserved to be in that classroom and that it was my right to live in an environment that was free of prejudice and discrimination. While I faced ignorance and intolerance from children who repeated racist and xenophobic epithets that they heard at home, school was the stable and affirming space where I could become my full and true self. It was my safe space.

Conventionally, safe spaces are known as environments where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students can find adult or peer allies. I think safe spaces and our schools can (and do) function as much more. The classroom is a place where I was exposed to new people and new ideas. It was where I was allowed to grow and make mistakes. It was where I found friends and community.

It was also where I was told I should “go back to my own country” and where I was bullied for not being “American enough.” It was where I was afraid to disclose my background and faith.

On this International Human Rights Day, I hold space for the young people across this country and the globe who look forward to the routine of going to school and sitting down to learn about a new topic. I hold space for the students who dread entering that same classroom and having to explain or justify their existence because of their origin or sexuality or gender or disability. I hold space for the black and brown students who have been unjustly pushed out of their school and who have been sequestered to a life bound by the criminal justice system. I hold space for all the refugees whose lives have been uprooted and who spend their nights wishing they could be doing homework instead of fearing for their lives and futures.

Today, I challenge you to evaluate how you create and support safe spaces in your communities. How have you combatted hatred and increased the love and empathy in your life? What are you going to do to make sure the next generation is more affirmed and empathetic than the one you are currently a part of? Schools were not my safe space by virtue of their existence; they were built up by caring educators and administrators who intentionally challenged themselves and were accountable to my success and growth as a citizen of this planet. 

I hope you’ll join me in the continued struggle for human rights and social justice, in our communities and beyond our borders.

Tea Sefer is the Organizing Associate at GLSEN. To find out more about what GLSEN is doing to change school climate and to stay informed about policy initiatives on the state and federal level, join GLSEN UP.