by Eric Ginsburg
Hundreds turn out to a press conference and multicultural Thanksgiving to welcome Syrian refugees with open arms after a nationwide backlash following terrorist attacks in Paris.
Marikay Abuzuaiter can relate to the plight of refugees.
Standing on the stage at First Presbyterian Church with dozens of others on Monday night, the Greensboro city councilwoman told the hundreds of people in the audience that her great grandfather came to the United States as a refugee at age 3. And her husband Isa, who helped hold a banner reading “Welcome refugees and immigrants!” a few feet away, is a refugee too, Abuzuaiter said.
The press conference kicked off an annual multicultural Thanksgiving dinner, a free event organized by Greensboro nonprofit FaithAction International House designed to bring people together from different religious traditions and ethnic backgrounds to break bread together. This year’s dinner took on additional significance in the wake of anti-refugee sentiment sweeping the nation and directed at Syrians in particular following recent terrorist attacks in Paris.
Abuzuaiter wasn’t the only one present who said she could understand the position of refugees. US Rep. Mark Walker, a pastor and Republican from Greensboro, stood near the entryway listening, but had to leave before the opening comments concluded.
Walker voted in favor of legislation last week that would limit Syrian refugees. But in an interview with Triad City Beat, Walker said he’d visited refugee camps on mission trips, adding, “I’m not anti-refugee.”
Walker, who appeared to be the only other elected official in the room besides Abuzuaiter and Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen, said he attended the event to listen to his constituents, regardless of whether he agrees with them.
“I appreciate the passion of the people coming out,” Walker said.
Walker said he wants to pause, not kill, the Syrian refugee admittance process, saying there is a need to balance safety concerns with humanitarian efforts. In a meeting with Congress members, Walker said FBI Director James Comey acknowledged gaps in the refugee screening process, citing that as a primary reason that he voted for the legislation. CNN reported last week that Comey has “deep concerns” about the legislation passed by the US House of Representatives.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris, French President Francois Hollande said the country would still accept the 30,000 refugees it committed to admitting. Walker said he is open to following that lead, but emphasized that he believes right now the United States needs to pause and reassess its program.
Speakers at the press conference, including Abuzuaiter, rejected the idea that Syrian refugees pose a security threat. Domestic terrorism is a bigger threat than refugees, Abuzuaiter said, and the next speaker, Wasif Qureshi with the Greensboro Islamic Center, echoed that sentiment. Some people are conflating all refugees and all Muslims with a very small group of terrorists, Qureshi said, but “Islam deplores all violence against innocent civilians” and a few terrorists shouldn’t be allowed to represent a religion with more than a billion adherents.
Rabbi Andy Koren, who is from Miami but is now at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, drew a correlation between treatment of Syrian refugees today to that of Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler. In 1939, a ship carrying Jewish refugees was turned away from port in Miami, he said.
“America at that point should’ve opened its doors, but it didn’t,” Koren said, calling on the nation to learn from its history.
The religious call to welcome refugees is strong in Jewish and Christian traditions, he said, citing Jesus’ call to love God, love thy neighbor but also to love the stranger. And it isn’t just a passing mention — the subject is raised 39 times in the Bible, Koren said, making it a commandment and an “underlying theme.”
Local Christian faith leaders, a Syrian volunteer with Church World Service, a college professor and refugee service providers also addressed the crowd, which numbered anywhere from 350 to 500 attendees.
Following the comments from the stage and calls for people to contact elected officials to express support for immigrants and refugees, particularly Syrians, people lined up at three long tables filled with food from all over the world, including Cuba and Japan.
By chance, the multicultural Thanksgiving event had been scheduled about a week after Gov. Pat McCrory’s public comments that he doesn’t want to accept additional Syrian refugees into the state, a sentiment voiced by more than a dozen governors nationwide. Shortly afterwards, someone called in a threat to Church World Service in Greensboro and made comments about the organization’s refugee resettlement program aiding terrorists.
Church World Service’s Greensboro office director, Stephanie Elizabeth Adams, said the threat was directed towards staff members and didn’t explicitly mention Syrians. But Adams said the organization wouldn’t be deterred from helping refugees, and the next day, Nov. 18, welcomed a new refugee family at Piedmont Triad International airport.
Despite the threat and one other negative call, Adams said Church World Service has received “hundreds of positive, supportive calls” and offers to volunteer to help newly arrived Syrian refugees to the Triad.
The same level of outpouring was evident Monday night, as hundreds of people turned out to express their solidarity with Syrian refugees in particular. Organizers said the attendance far exceeded expectations, and volunteers were constantly setting up additional seating around the edge of the large room and scrounging for more silverware in order to accommodate the massive crowd.
This, Abuzuaiter said, is why Greensboro has been an ideal place for refugees to relocate. And with the help of city council, she said, she’ll do everything in her power to ensure the city stays that way.