The past week has been terrible the world over. For Syrian refugees, who are one of the most vulnerable populations on earth right now, the events that have transpired since the Paris attacks have been particularly devastating.
Throughout Europe and North America, many politicians (but notably not all) used the attacks as an excuse to call for further restrictions on refugees entering their state’s territory or applying for asylum. Even Charlie Baker, the governor of notoriously liberal Massachusetts, the state where I live, has expressed a desire to halt refugee resettlement. As the Boston Globe reported, on Monday November 16, Baker said, “No, I’m not interested in accepting refugees from Syria.”
Frustrated and angered by the anti-refugee stance of Baker and other politicians like him, I attended a protest supporting the resettlement of refugees in Massachusetts on the night of Friday, November 20. The protest was held outside the Massachusetts State House, which is next to the Common in downtown Boston.
An estimated 500 people attended, many bearing signs expressing their solidarity with the Syrian refugees. There were a diverse array of short speeches given by representatives of groups that co-sponsored the gathering (a full list can be found on the event’s Facebook page). Speakers included a Jewish representative from the American Friends Service Committee (a Quaker organization), a Muslim-American college student, and a representative from the Brazilian Worker Center. The common thread running through nearly all the speeches was a desire to counter the anti-refugee narrative coming from politicians and, instead, to embrace the common humanity we share with all human being, refugees included.
Arguably, the most inspiring and moving speeches came from speakers who were themselves refugees. A Syrian doctor, who had been granted refugee status with his wife in 2012, told us how seeing the crowd gathered in support of his people helped him regain his faith in humanity after all he had been through. A young woman named Edina, who became a refugee at the age of seven as a result of the Bosnian war, spoke with a forceful but quivering voice about her struggle, as a young refugee child, to believe that she could ever feel truly safe again. In two years, she moved between twenty-six refugee camps and was finally granted asylum with her family in the United States in the year 2000. Her voice rose in anger as she called out Baker and other American politicians who she accused of shattering her dream of the United States as a safe haven for refugees. Edina invited Governor Baker or any other politician unclear about the rigorous process involved in applying for refugees status to contact her so she could explain it to them, step by step.
The hateful, ugly, and frankly racist statements that dominated the American media this week drowned out the voices of the millions of Americans who, like those gathered on the Boston Common Friday night, want nothing more than to help and welcome Syrian refugees to this country. After attending the protest, I was surprised to find that there were many other rallies in support of refugees this week in all corners of the country, like Colorado, California, Idaho, Indiana, Vermont, Maryland, Washington, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and even in “bright red” states like Georgia, Arizona, and Texas (and likely in many other cities and towns that did not jump to the top of my Google searches). Unfortunately, local rallies filled with ordinary people expressing positive sentiments do not capture headlines like the seemingly relentless parade of bizarre and offensive statements from presidential candidates do.
Still, these rallies are not going unnoticed by those in political office. Thanks to the outcry from his constituency, Governor Baker has already been forced to backtrack a bit on his anti-refugee sentiments, and did not sign a letter endorsed by other Republican governors, asking President Obama to suspend the refugee resettlement program. And even though a bill mandating more intense screening for refugees passed the U.S. House of Representatives this week and may also pass the Senate, Obama has promised to exercise his veto to defeat it.
As Ibrahim, a young American Muslim student from Boston University counseled at the rally, we must not let our emotions get the best of us. In this time of fear-mongering, we cannot let the most shrill and irrational voices receive all the attention. Instead, we must do what we can to ensure messages of welcome and solidarity are heard as well.