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Students, community members protest anti-refugee efforts

Students face off against nonprofit group demanding repeal of welcome to refugees

This story is the first in a three-part series about Syrians in Providence and at Brown University.

Students and community members gathered at the State House Monday to protest the non-profit organization Americans for Peace and Tolerance, which assembled to ask Gov. Gina Raimondo to rescind her welcome to Syrian refugees.

Rhode Island welcomed its first refugees Feb. 13. The family, with children aged six, seven and eight, spent several years in Turkey after fleeing the civil war in Syria. They number among the 2,234 Syrian refugees admitted to the United States since October 2010.

“Rhode Island resettles hundreds of refugees every year, and most of them are resettled without problem,” said Rick Salamé ’16, co-director of the Brown-RISD Arab Society and a Rhode Island resident. “But because of anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, the Syrian refugee crisis has become politicized, and people are upset about these particular refugees.”

Members of Americans for Peace and Tolerance said that by admitting Syrian refugees, Rhode Island may be posing a serious threat to its Jewish population. Charles Jacobs, the group’s founder, asserted during his group’s protest that Syrian schools teach the country’s children a hatred of the West — “especially of Jews.” Jacobs cited one study that found that Syrian schoolbooks portray Jews as enemies of Islam.

Sterk Zaza, who immigrated to Rhode Island from Syria in 1979, told The Herald that Jacobs’ claims are unfounded.

“I went to school in Syria. I was not taught to hate Jews. I was not taught to hate Christians,” she said. She visited Syria in 2010 and said she did not witness any of the blatant anti-Semitism feared by Americans for Peace and Tolerance.

Jacobs called for the state to stop admitting Syrian refugees to prevent tragedies like the string of sexual assaults that happened in Cologne, Germany from occurring in the United States.

“We will not bow to tyranny and evil,” said former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-MI, a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who joined Americans for Peace and Tolerance at the State House. “There will be no more Boston massacres, no more San Bernardinos.”

“The people responsible for our national security can’t tell you if (refugees) are from Syria or Iraq,” Jacobs said.

“It doesn’t matter,” pro-refugee protesters responded.

“They haven’t met these people,” said Zaza, who helps refugees transition to their new home. “They don’t know how grueling the process is to get here or the humiliation they go through.”

As representatives from Americans for Peace and Tolerance spoke, students interrupted their assertions with chants of, “Don’t give in to racist fear. Refugees are welcome here!” and “Shame on you!”

In response to their protests, Jacobs paused in the middle of his statement to address the crowd. “Is this a trigger warning?” he asked.

“What are you doing about the genocide in Palestine?” shouted one student protester.

“What Palestine?” responded a photographer for the group of anti-refugee protesters.

Pro-Syrian refugee protesters, like Umberto Crenca, founder of AS220, pointed out the irony of preventing refugees from coming to America, despite the fact that he, like many of the protesters on both sides of the issue, is descended from families who immigrated to America for their own reasons years earlier.

In his speech, Hoekstra defended his arguments by referencing his own background. “I’m an immigrant,” Hoekstra said to protesters.

“Are you better than me?” Zaza yelled.

The rhetoric against admitting refugees to Rhode Island involves not only Islamophobic arguments, but also anti-Arab sentiments, said Marc Boucai, a protester and Syrian Jew whose family immigrated to the United States in the 1990s.

“The lines between xenophobia and Islamophobia are very close,” he said. The “machine of xenophobia” in the United States creates a perception of the Middle East as a “monolith” and does not “acknowledge the complexities or the histories” of the region, he said.

In a conference following the event, leaders from the Refugee Dream Center and local churches and synagogues were joined by Rep. Aaron Regunberg ’12, D-Providence to speak out against the arguments used by the anti-refugee group.

Yet some representatives fear that the vetting process for Syrian refugees is not thorough enough.

“The director of the (Federal Bureau of Investigation) stated that he doesn’t have the utmost certainty that the (vetting) process will prevent any possibility of terrorism,” Rep. Robert Nardolillo, R-Coventry, told The Herald before the protest. If those officials who secure the process don’t feel comfortable at this time, then Rhode Island should not risk the safety of its residents, he added.

“Yes, we need to be humanitarians,” he said. “But take public safety into account. … You can’t do a background check on those who don’t have background information.”

Omar Bah, a refugee from Gambia and founder of the Refugee Dream Center, disagreed. The process to be admitted to the United States is far more expansive than state representatives assume, he said.

“Refugees are more vetted than any other person entering this country,” Bah said. “It takes an average of two years before an investigation is complete.”

Refugees throughout history

After a vigil held on campus in December honoring those who have died in the Syrian civil war, Ben Gladstone ’18, a member of the Brown/RISD Hillel Community, said the issue strikes a particular chord for him.

“It was just a couple of decades ago that the U.S. government was associating Jews with a political ideology — communism — and using that as justification to condemn us to death,” Gladstone said. “To see that same U.S. government blocking another group from entering is a reminder that this country as a whole has not learned from the Holocaust.”

Regunberg also drew the comparison between the Syrian refugee crisis and how Jews — including his own grandfather — faced stigma as refugees entering the United States in the 1940s. He said that growing up, he could not understand how the United States could refuse those families and children.

The events of the past show the United States’ history of “callousness and bigotry,” Regunberg said. “I’ll be damned if we let that happen again.”

“That ugly xenophobia has no place in the lively experience that is our Rhode Island,” he added.

Nardolillo said the comparison between the refugee crisis and the Holocaust is not “apples-to-apples.”

“On a humanitarian outlook, there definitely is a comparison,” he said. “But what we’re talking about is in terms of terrorism, and the Holocaust isn’t connected with that.”

Zaza pointed to the recent family that arrived from Syria as an example of the kind of people the United States is considering taking in as a part of its resettlement efforts. “If you look at the faces of the mom and dad, of the children — you tell me that those are terrorists,” she said.

Activism’s reaches

Student activism among Brown students in support of admitting Syrian refugees dates further back than Monday’s event. Across campus, other individuals and student groups have also confronted the refugee crisis in Syria. In December, students from the Interfaith Coalition for Syria — which comprises members from Hillel, the Catholic community and Ba’hai Club — held a vigil for Syrian refugees who had lost their lives in the conflict. The event was followed with a teach-in by Julia Gettle GS and Sarah Tobin, associate director of the Middle East studies department.

“The kinds of circumstances that the Syrians are overcoming every day to show their resilience and survive and even to thrive are remarkable,” Tobin said at the event. She spoke with many refugees while working in Jordan in the past several years. “I continue to go back because I believe in them.”

Throughout the week prior to the event, the Interfaith Coalition organized a raffle to raise money to fund the White Helmets, a group of volunteers that works to rescue Syrians from rubble following barrel bombs and clashes in civilian areas.

Funds raised by the men’s lacrosse team’s 36-hour run — in which the team’s members continuously jogged around the Main Green for a day and a half — were donated to the Rumie Initiative. The non-profit delivers free educational content to children in Syria by sending $50 tablets with a “library’s worth of content” to low-income areas, said Todd Stewart ’16, a member of the lacrosse team, at the vigil.

Between raffle tickets and the group’s sponsorships, the Interfaith Coalition raised $1,350 in December. The cost to put up one of the White Helmets in the hospital for a day is $150. “That’s a lot of hospital days we can fund,” Gladstone said.

The teach-in’s main priority was to lobby senators to vote against the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, which would expand background checks on Syrian and Iraqi refugees entering the United States.

“Previously we assumed that liberal Democrats of Rhode Island would represent us and vote against the bill,” Gladstone said. The state’s delegation in the House was divided, with U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, D-RI, voting against the bill and U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin, D-RI, voting for it.

But in January, the Senate voted against it 55-43. President Barack Obama threatened to veto the bill had it come to pass.



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