A Maine high school student from Zambia who is seeking asylum in the United States has won the legal right to compete in a national poetry recital contest next week.

U.S. District Judge John A. Woodcock on Friday granted a temporary restraining order against the National Endowment for the Arts, allowing Allan Monga to attend the NEA’s Poetry Out Loud competition beginning Monday in Washington, D.C.

The NEA had excluded Monga, a junior at Deering High School, from the national competition because its rules require that competitors be either citizens or permanent residents. Woodcock wrote in his decision that Monga would be irreparably harmed if he were not allowed to “take advantage of the unique, fleeting, one-time opportunity he has earned.” Monga, 19, won the state Poetry Out Loud competition in March.

Monga was “absolutely thrilled” with the judge’s ruling, said his lawyer, Bruce Smith. Monga declined to comment on the ruling publicly Friday, wanting instead to focus on his poetry and practice for next week’s competition.

“He’s really grateful for all the support from the school and from the community” Smith said. “He’s very excited and very focused. He wants to get ready.”

Smith wasn’t sure what day Monga would leave Maine to attend the competition. State winners are supposed to get all-expenses-paid trips to Poetry Out Loud, but since the NEA deemed Monga ineligible, it’s unclear if that will happen. But lawyers at Drummond Woodsum, the Portland firm handling Monga’s case at no cost, said this week that they had raised money for his trip.

Contestants are scheduled to arrive at Poetry Out Loud on Monday and the competition will begin Tuesday morning at George Washington University. The finals are Wednesday and the competition will be streamed live on the NEA’s website.

Monga, who fled Zambia alone last year, lived for a time at the Preble Street Teen Center in Portland when he first arrived. He currently lives in Westbrook and has formally applied for asylum.

After enrolling at Deering last fall, he was told by teachers about Poetry Out Loud. Though he had never recited poetry before, he wanted to try it. He said reciting poetry has helped him “express myself” and he’s quickly found he has a passion for it. Teachers and poets who’ve heard him recite say his talent for evoking emotion and telling stories with his words and gestures is rare.

“This case has meaning on a lot of levels. Allan is an example of what immigrants can bring to this country and how they can make an enriching contribution,” Smith said.

Monga’s lawyers, in their suit against the NEA, argued that Monga was being denied his due process rights and was being discriminated against based on his immigrant status. Though a temporary restraining order was granted, the lawsuit is still pending. Other issues to be settled include whether the NEA will pay Monga’s expenses or allow him to receive any monetary prizes he might win at the contest. The national winner gets $20,000, while finalists get smaller awards.

Smith said another issue to be settled is whether the NEA will change the rule that bars certain classes of immigrants from Poetry Out Loud.

In his decision, Woodcock mentioned that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the rights of immigrant children to a public education, even if they were brought here illegally. Woodcock wrote that Poetry Out Loud is “part and parcel” of Deering’s educational program.

Lawyers for the NEA had argued that Monga was not being denied an educational opportunity, since he was able to participate in the Poetry Out Loud program at his school. They also argued that the NEA had the right to decide how to spend its limited resources by restricting the classes of people it serves.

Lawyers for the NEA could not be reached for comment Friday.

Monga competed in the Maine finals of Poetry Out Loud because the Maine Arts Commission – organizer of the state contest – decided to allow him despite the national contest rules. After becoming a regional finalist and earning a spot in the state finals, Monga was told he could not compete further. But Portland school officials contacted the Maine Arts Commission on his behalf, and he was allowed to participate.

Since he filed suit, neither Monga nor his lawyers have talked about why he left Zambia. Asylum cases are confidential, because they involve people fleeing from harm or the threat of harm. Talking about the reasons someone left their home country and fear their home government can be dangerous for friends and family left behind, asylum law experts say.

Read the ruling

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

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