Oakland Mills junior devises pajama protest to take a stand against separating immigrant families

Who knew that kids’ pajamas could become such evocative symbols of protest?

Alex Kohn did, for starters.


The Oakland Mills High School junior came up with the idea of hanging 135 sets of diminutive sleepwear on a clothesline as a backdrop for an immigration talk he and three friends gave at their church in October.

Using pajamas as a metaphor for children caught in the battle over illegal immigration had such a powerful impact on members of Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia that the concept is being recycled.


This time the scale and the stakes are much larger.

Piggybacking off Kohn’s creativity, UUCC is joining forces with Howard County Indivisible to hang nearly 1,000 pairs of pajamas on about 1,500 feet of clothesline on the National Mall on June 9.

Indivisible is a national umbrella organization dedicated to building a fairer, more compassionate democracy.

"We want to normalize conversations about mental health issues," says Nikki Highsmith Vernick, Horizon Foundation president and CEO.

The “Where Are the Children?” project — which is part art installation, part demonstration — will serve as a silent protest of the White House’s policy of separating migrant families who enter the U.S. illegally at its border with Mexico.

Also known as the National Mall Project, the protest will be staged from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on a grassy plot across from the Washington Monument, between 12th and 14th streets NW. The rally is timed to coincide with International Children’s Day.

“We believe the Trump Administration’s zero tolerance policy of separating immigrant families is immoral, unjust and un-American,” reads an online statement at wherearethechildren.us, a website set up to share project details and immigration news. “This cruel policy must end and families must be reunited at once.”

Organizers aren’t the only ones interested in seeing the practice halted.

Since the “Where Are the Children?” Facebook page was set up two months ago, it has attracted more than 4,600 views from across the country, a Howard County Indivisible spokesperson said.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat representing Maryland’s 7th congressional district and chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, emailed a statement to the group in support of its efforts.

“When our own government rips vulnerable children, toddlers and even infants from the arms of their mothers and father with no plans to reunite them, that is government-sponsored child abuse,” Cummings said.

“I am proud to recognize the ‘Where Are the Children?’ project for taking a stand against the injustice of separating families,” he concluded.

The nonprofit organization Respite Retreats also plans to recognize the needs of personal caregivers.

Area organizations supporting the project include American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, Court Appointed Special Advocates of Baltimore, FIRN (Foreign-born Information and Referral Network), Friends of Latin America, Maryland United for Peace and Justice and Our Revolution Howard County.


Before Kohn came up with using donated pajamas to represent migrant children, he said he knew one thing for certain: “No child should have to go to bed without their parents to tuck them in.”

That’s when the idea popped into his head to tug at people’s heartstrings and nudge their consciences at the same time.

“How can anyone justify separating families and putting kids into detention camps not knowing where their parents are?” Kohn asked.

He said he would also like to know how the federal government can possibly not know where these children are or how to reunite them with their families.

“There’s fear of people who aren’t Americans or who aren’t ‘like us,’ “ Kohn said, “and this racism is being normalized.”

The Rev. Paige Getty, UUCC senior minister, commended Kohn and his family for their activism, which is rooted in the church’s view that “we’re part of a larger world to which we owe care.”

“They all clearly have the instinct, heart and compassion for justice,” Getty said.

Howard County’s sweetheart ballerina Maggie Kudirka produces her fifth cancer benefit with stars galore at Howard Community College’s Smith Theater on June 2.

Nadine Bernard, a member of the Howard County Indivisible immigration committee that is organizing the rally, likened the pajama project to the AIDS Memorial Quilt that was first displayed across the country in the late 1980s.

“Alex’s project weighed big on my heart and I made a pitch to the immigration committee to do pajamas on the mall,” she said. “We felt it was time for our group to make a bigger splash.”

Bernard said her grandparents came to America from Armenia, where genocide had taken place in the early 1900s, and that she grew up in New Jersey with many kids whose parents were Holocaust survivors.

“When things started happening at the border, I was shocked and I didn’t want to think it was possible” to again encounter the type of treatment of others that had defined her youth, she said.

Tammy Spengler — a “Where Are the Children?” organizer, social worker and Kohn’s mother — said she has read newspaper reports alleging the Department of Health and Human Services has lost track of how many children have been separated from their families.

“This isn’t what America is,” she said. “We need to define who we are as a country and what values we stand for.”

Organizers have posted an online petition demanding the closing of a detention center for migrant children in Homestead, Fla. Anyone who stops by the mall on June 9 will be asked if they’d like to sign.

Spengler said visitors will also be invited to write the names of any detained migrant children they may know on squares of colored paper and then pin them to a pair of pajamas.

“This will be our way of honoring missing children,” she said.

Bernard said like-minded citizens across the country are being encouraged via social media to create their own pajama displays and submit their photos to the “Where Are the Children?” Facebook page.

Sometime after the rally, organizers plan to donate the pajamas to nonprofits that help families.

“But we’re going to keep one or two clotheslines’ worth — in case we get the chance to display them again,” Bernard said.

For more information, go to wherearethechildren.us, indivisiblehocomd.org or uucolumbia.net.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun