Mishka Banuri: A First Generation Immigrant’s Perspective on Youth Climate Justice

This keynote talk was given at the 2019 Bioneers Conference.

A first generation Pakistani immigrant, Mishka Banuri moved to Utah when she was 12 years old and fell in love with that state’s wondrous mountains, aspen trees and red rocks, but she saw many of those sacred lands despoiled by the greed of extractive industries. This awakened her to the global systems of resource exploitation ravaging ecosystems and poor communities around the world and has made her an extraordinarily passionate and effective youth climate justice activist in Utah.

Mishka Banuri is an 18-year-old organizer from Salt Lake City, Utah. She has been politically active since 7th grade, holding statewide organizations, institutions, and politicians accountable for their actions on climate and social issues.

Read the full verbatim transcript of this keynote talk below.


My name is Mishka Banuri and I’m the daughter of Pakistani Muslim immigrants. And before I start, I need all of your help. Those who know me know that I am—I owe so much to my family, so I want all of your help in thanking my mother, who is here somewhere in this crowd, for everything that she’s done for me. [APPLAUSE] Thank you all so much. Yes, I don’t know who said that, but I love you, Mama, thank you.

The place that I call home and currently live in is Salt Lake City, Utah, [CHEERS] which is on occupied Eastern Shoshone and Goshute land. I moved there when I was 12 and completely fell in love. For almost 12 years of my life I was raised in a suburb of Chicago, in a cookie-cutter suburb of Chicago where I didn’t have much access to nature other than my front lawn. And when I came to Salt Lake City and I was suddenly surrounded by mountains that hugged the valley that my family now lives in, I could leave my house and hike to overlook the valley in a matter of minutes. And my favorite time in Utah is right now – fall – the mountains become ablaze with red and orange and auburn colors, and if you go into the canyon, the aspen trees are the most gorgeous golden-yellow color. They’ve brought me safety and regeneration in really tough times in my life. It’s my absolute favorite tree.

And one thing that I love about aspens is that in a forest of thousands of seemingly individual trees, they actually have a singular root system. They’re all connected and they have the same roots. It is an incredibly resilient and beautiful tree that reminds me to stay strong in the face of adversity.

I owe some of my connection to the natural world and Earth to my grandmother. She’s a botanist, and growing up, I remember going on long walks with her, and she taught me about the different plants around me, and the medicinal qualities of the plants in Pakistan that I still use today to nourish my body.

In Utah, I currently organize with an organization called Utah Youth Environmental Solutions, also known as UYES. I also work with Uplift, which is a youth-led climate justice organization based in the Colorado Plateau and greater Southwest. Utah and the Southwest have long been a sacrifice zone. The area is rife with fossil fuel extraction. Salt Lake City has some of the country’s worst air at times, and Utah has seen its public officials try and push a tar sands mine – what would have been the first in the United States. Nuclear waste and extraction devastate frontline communities, specifically indigenous communities whose water and health are impacted by uranium extraction, refining and transportation.

What I do is to help mobilize young people in Utah around climate justice issues because the impacts are so tangible for communities all over Utah. One main motivator for my work is my faith – Islam. I grew up as a Muslim in the United States post 9/11, and I’ve struggled growing up in a country that is loyal to the Islamophobia industry.

Muslims, like so many other people, have to constantly prove our humanity so that our sacred spaces are not vandalized, so that we can get jobs, and so that we can stay alive. I struggled with internalized Islamophobia until I came to the realization that if anyone is a threat to white supremacy, to the patriarchy in all systems that are the foundation for our soundings[?], we are all labeled as terrorists rather than the people who terrorize our communities every day.

To be clear, 9/11 is not the beginning of Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism in this country, but it marks a significant shift that continues to justify the treatment of Muslims all over the world. It was also a huge motivator for the war on terror. And it wasn’t the only one. The other huge motivator for the war on terror was oil and resources that the United States believed it could take for its own benefit. And I’m specifically talking about the Iraq War.

Before the Iraq invasion, oil was nationalized and inaccessible to foreign companies like Exxon Mobile, the same company that also funds climate denial. After the war, oil in Iraq and other countries was privatized and continues to be commodified, and is now in the ownership of Exxon Mobile and other companies.

When people contribute to Islamophobic ideas that Muslims are not able to govern themselves, that they need some outside forces to bring democracy on them, it justifies intervention or the idea that the West needs to liberate Muslim women from these countries. We justify the intervention that causes a cycle of violence for oil and resources.

This colonial and imperialistic behavior of the United States is not new. Literature has shown that the military has adopted a metaphor of referring to places with resources ripe for intervention, like the Middle East as “Indian Country.” The behavior modeled is not new because it is how the US exists in the first place, stealing land, resources, and the lives of indigenous and black people. So while we continue to see privatization and extraction on indigenous land, we will also see privatization, militarization, extraction and thievery from ethnic minorities, Muslims, and the Global South.

Many of you know of Blackwater, a company that provided arms to the US military and massacred Iraqis in the invasion. Democracy Now! reporters say that Tiger Swan, the private security company that surveilled and infiltrated Standing Rock has connections and comes from Blackwater. There are wars being fought on this soil and abroad for the same greed.

As I think about the awful projects that are happening in the backyards of frontline communities in Utah and the Southwest, I also think about what’s happening abroad, because it is the same system. The Prophet, may peace be upon him, once said: Muslims are like a body of a person. If the eyes are afflicted, then the whole body is affected. If the head is afflicted, then the body is afflicted. We are all connected, and these same systems affect so many different communities.

To me, this realization is overwhelming and scary, and so I come back to think about the aspen trees in my home. Like the roots of the aspen, I recognize that I am connected to everyone here and all over the world. As a Muslim, it is so important for me to stand up for my Muslim siblings facing threats to their livelihood all over the world, and my siblings on the frontlines of white supremacy and ecological devastation.

I’m not liberated until everyone is liberated. By having strong, local climate justice movements that are in solidarity with each other, we are dismantling this global system. [APPLAUSE]

And I remind everyone to have hope, because I have hope. And I have hope in young people that are destroying the status quo and business as usual. [APPLAUSE] We are demanding justice, and we are right. And we’re seeing people change and mobilize every single day.

I’m going to end a quote from a song. I’m not going to sing, [LAUGHTER] but a quote from a song that was written by a local organizer in Utah, that says: The oceans are rising and so are we. Thank you so much. [APPLAUSE]

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