WASHINGTON – A diverse group of students, families, and activists gathered for a peaceful protest in front of the White House this afternoon to call upon federal and local governments to let more Syrian refugees into the U.S.
More than 100 rally participants carried signs welcoming refugees, and chanted against a recent announcement by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland that opposed refugee entry in the state. President Obama has committed to accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016. Republican governors of 31 states have said they won’t let those refugees in, though they have little legal authority to prevent the settlement.
On Thursday, Congress voted to tighten restrictions on refugees from Syria and Iraq in response to last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris. The current vetting process for refugees is at least 18 months long, and includes screening by the State Department, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Department. President Obama has said he would veto the bill.
The rally was part of a week-long series of actions planned to influence the federal and local governments on their policy on refugees. They included facilitating discussions at local churches and mosques, and making calls to Gov. Hogan’s office. Washington residents Ahmad Asaad and Dania Trabelsi Tagouri Shafei co-organized the events along with local students.
Shafei, 22, a graduate student at Georgetown University, is the daughter of immigrants from Libya.
“There are a lot of Libyan refugees across the world; a lot of people there can’t even afford to get out of the country. I understand what it’s like to be forced to leave and not have any other options,” Shafei said.
The rally, which had originally been planned as a protest against Hogan’s statement, was moved to in front of the White House after Congress passed the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act. Asaad and Shafei said they decided on the White House because the passing of the bill had given the refugee issue national importance.
Asaad, 21, a Palestinian-American from Texas who recently graduated from the University of Houston, said the rally was not representing any particular organization. It was about uniting concerned citizens from all walks of life.
“We are expecting a very, very diverse crowd today and I think that’s one of the most beautiful things, when everyone can just come together,” Asaad said.
David Gillette, a Maryland resident who works at a local library learned about the rally on Facebook.
“These governors have no authority to actually do anything. They’re just playing to this xenophobia to look tough. It’s incredibly depressing,” he said. Gillette also said that Gov. Hogan’s views were not representative of a majority of Marylanders.
Participants chanted, “Stop the fear/ stop the hate / let us not discriminate” and “Nobody’s illegal, refugees are people” to the beat of the Turkish drum,
Paulette D’auteuil, an activist for political prisoners’ rights, said it was “unconscionable” for Americans to tell someone they could or could not come to the U.S.
“All white people on this continent are refugees. If America’s indigenous people had said this to them, what would have been their response?” she said.
Michael Marceau, a resident of Silver Spring, Md. and a Vietnam veteran said he was ashamed of Gov. Hogan’s statement. He blamed U.S. military action in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya for the current refugee crisis.
“I think we have a responsibility to take care of those who have been displaced by our actions. I personally as a veteran am appalled by the way we are treating refugees,” Marceau, who represents the group Veterans for Peace, said.
According to Shafei, out of all the Syrian refugees settled across the world, not one has been convicted of terrorism, yet statements by politicians like Donald Trump and Ben Carson tend to portray them all as terrorists. She said that as a hijab-wearing Muslim-American, these statements made her feel unsafe.
“I feel like when politicians, or people having some influence within the nation say these things, they are helping to perpetuate the fear of Islam.”
Asaad said that today’s rally hoped to show Gov. Hogan as well as the U.S. government that Washington area residents don’t just have the compassion and drive to protest on social media, but can also come out in person to voice their opinions.
“They will know that we are out here and they will know that we will be resilient until justice is presented,” he said.