PROVIDENCE — Close to 100 people took part in a rally in support of accepting Syrian refugees for resettlement in Rhode Island held at the State House last Thursday afternoon, including faith leaders, refugees living in Rhode Island, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence’s Office of Immigration and Refugee Services and representatives of Dorcas International Institute.
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Senators Joshua Miller (D-Cranston/Warwick) and Gayle Goldin (D-Providence) hosted the event. Father Bernard Healey, director of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference, spoke on behalf of the Diocese of Providence.
“Refugees fleeing terror and persecution must not become the scapegoats of the very terror and persecution they have fled,” he said. “Welcoming the homeless and the stranger is a fundamental part of our faith. Welcoming refugees is a noble American tradition that should not be abandoned in the name of fear.”
The show of support comes in response to an outcry against U.S. refugee resettlement following the tragic terror attacks in Paris on November 13. As security heightens across the globe, many world leaders have expressed fears that ISIS operatives may take advantage of the heavy stream of Syrian refugees to slip into Western nations unnoticed. Those fears were confirmed on November 19 when French authorities announced that several of the attackers, including ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud, likely returned to France via a refugee migrant route through Greece after traveling to Syria.
As of Tuesday, at least 31 governors, some representing states that have previously accepted Syrian refugees, had announced plans to halt resettlement until more stringent security measures can be adopted. In Rhode Island, Governor Gina Raimondo announced that the state would remain open to resettlement of refugees if requested by the federal government, following pressure by lawmakers and religious leaders.
“If the federal government asks Rhode Island to host refugees fleeing violence and terror in Syria or anywhere else, we will welcome them with compassion,” she said in a statement released following the State House rally.
Despite heated debates in state houses across the nation, the decision regarding refugees remains in the hands of the federal government. Last Thursday, House lawmakers passed a bill temporarily suspending the Syrian and Iraqi refugee resettlement programs. President Obama has promised to veto the bill, which is expected to go to vote in the Senate shortly after Thanksgiving, though with overwhelmingly bipartisan support, it is possible the House could override a veto to pass the bill into law.
At the rally, religious leaders as well as refugees living in Rhode Island united in opposition to this sudden change in policy, calling for an end to the culture of fear that has created a shift in attitude toward one of the world’s most vulnerable populations.
Particularly concerning to many was the call by some lawmakers to admit Christian but not Muslim refugees. As several speakers point out, though proposed with the goal of keeping U.S. citizens safe from extremism, the policy amounts to an act of religious discrimination not unlike the U.S. reluctance to admit Jewish refugees from the Holocaust in the 1930s and ‘40s.
“We know the devastating consequences of letting fear control us,” said Sen. Goldin, whose great-aunt and great-uncle died during the Holocaust. “We are all people of the world. These are our people, our children.”
Rabbi Sarah Mack of Temple Beth El, Providence, likened the turning away of Syrian refugee boats to the turning away of the St. Louis, a German ocean liner carrying Jewish refugees that in 1939 was refused admittance at U.S. ports and forced to return to Europe, where many of its passengers perished in death camps. “The Torah commands us 36 times to care for the stranger,” she said, referring to scriptures also contained in the Christian Old Testament.
Imam Farid Ansari, president of the Rhode Island Council for Muslim Advancement, denounced the fanaticism of militant Islamists such as those behind the Paris attacks, clarifying that such extremism violates the teachings of true Islam.
“We unequivocally condemn all acts of terror,” he said. “It is un-Islamic and it is un-American and it’s not something that we subscribe to.”
Several Catholic leaders have spoken out recently calling for continued support of Syrian and other refugees, including Bishop Thomas J. Tobin and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In his remarks, Father Healey referred to a speech by Pope Francis before the U.S. Congress during his September visit to the U.S. in which the pontiff called for a more humane response to the refugee crisis.
“We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation,” he quoted. “We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.”
Several refugees participated in the rally, including Omar Bah, a former journalist who left his home in Gambia in 2006 after being targeted and tortured because of his writings. After settling in Rhode Island as a refugee, he founded the Refugee Dream Center to offer basic services to refugees in the Providence area. In a speech, Bah called on state leaders and citizens to show compassion toward those fleeing their homeland due to violence.
“I wanted to share that there could be millions like me out there,” he told Rhode Island Catholic following the address. “The refugee should not be the sacrificial lamb. They are victims.”
During the resettlement process, Bah received assistance from Dorcas International Institute, an immigration services organization with ties to the Sisters of Mercy. Many of the refugees in attendance also received assistance from the diocesan Office of Immigration and Refugee Services, which assists in resettling some 40 individuals and families in the state every year. Though the diocese has not yet been officially asked to receive refugees from Syria, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently requested that the office increase the number of refugees it can assist to 75, a request the diocese welcomed wholeheartedly.
Following the rally, a counter-rally in opposition to Syrian refugee resettlement was hosted by Rep. Robert Nardolillo (R-Coventry). In his remarks, Rep. Nardolillo called for a pause in resettlement to assess the effectiveness of the security screening process used to monitor incoming refugees. Several individuals in attendance also expressed concerns over the use of state funds for refugee resettlement instead of other social services.
One man, who identified himself as Scott, explained that he had been homeless for six years. He feared that an influx of refugees would take away from already tight state funds. “They’ve got refugees coming in and they’re going to be receiving medical,” he said. “How can they bring all these people in and they can’t take care of their own people?”