Usually, vigils and rallies and marches protest something. Not today. This afternoon’s vigil at the governor’s mansion in St. Paul celebrated Minnesota as a state that not only tolerates, but welcomes refugees. Organizers thanked Governor Mark Dayton for his statements in support of that long Minnesota tradition.
The invitation for today’s vigil said it was “a prayer vigil to stand in solidarity with all refugees and persons seeking sanctuary, and to acknowledge our extensive history of immigration and welcoming those displaced by war and persecution. We want to continue to open the door for those seeking safe harbor from Syria, Iraq, Central America, and other places around the globe.”
The vigil was organized by people of faith, like the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, who wrote to the Pioneer Press on November 29, in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks:
“We refuse to allow the actions of radical groups ot push us to respond with anything but love and mercy. We urge people around the world and their governments to embrace the refugees fleeing violence and hatred and welcome them into the sanctuary of our countries. Syrian refugees, fleeing a brutal civil war, are themselves victims of ISIS.”
Why Minnesota? Rihab Naheel said that “Those with the coldest weather have the warmest hearts.” That might be true, but Minnesota has other reasons for welcoming refugees. St. Paul City Council member Dai Thao embodies one of the reasons: welcoming refugees has built a stronger, more vibrant community.
“Without the love of Minnesota, my family wouldn’t be here, the Hmong-American community wouldn’t be here,” Thao said. After expressing his gratitude for the welcome that Hmong refugees received, he said that history is repeating itself, with Syrian refugees fleeing war just as he and his family fled the war in Southeast Asia. “I lost a sister and a younger brother along the way [from Laos],” Thao said. Today Syrian refugees face an equally hazardous passage.
Hmong Americans have contributed much to Minnesota, Thao said, and Syrians will, too. “In 1975-75, there were folks here to fight” for Hmong refugees, Thao said, adding that today refugees “have you to fight for them.”
Rihab Naheel, a young Syrian woman who moved here 14 years ago, explained that many Syrian students are here without legal status. Since they arrived on student visas, the war at home has gotten much worse. They are on lists for recruitment into the Syrian military if they return home. Their parents have fled the country. They have no home to return to. And they have to continue paying to register for classes here, or lose their status entirely. She said that the U.S. government should give them TPS — temporary protected status — so they do not have to return to Syria, to be drafted into Assad’s army.
A Syrian immigrant noted that refugees have tough background checks, and those for Syrian refugees are the toughest. He described the journey that they endure before even applying for admission to the United States. “I have a few friends and members of my family who have gone through the terrible journey — Turkey, Greece, Eastern Europe, Germany, and finally Sweden.” His family members are scattered throughout several countries.
The vigil was co-sponsored by the Interfaith Coalition on Immigration and the Minnesotans for Syrian Refugees and Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria. But their concern extended beyond Syrian refugees, including also the refugees from Central America.
Amy Smith, from the International Institute, spoke about that organization’s work with Central American children fleeing gang violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. She said that these three countries are among the five countries in the world with the highest murder rates. Last year, 300 unaccompanied children were released from detention centers to sponsors — mostly family members — in MInnesota. This year the number is lower, only about 250 children escaping gang recruitment and violence. Most Central American children are stopped before they get to the U.S. border, or deported shortly after they enter.
Syrian refugees face a long wait for acceptance and resettlement. The first step is making the application or being referred to U.S. embassy by the U.N. refugee agency. That takes a long time. Then the U.S. process for application takes years, including extremely extensive and difficult-to-pass background checks. Here’s how Vox describes the security checks:
“Syrian refugees have to prove a negative: that they have never had any involvement with any group the US would consider terrorists. For men who have served with one rebel group or another during the war, that can often be impossible; if a man left a rebel group when it affiliated with al-Qaeda, he has no way to prove that he wasn’t an al-Qaeda affiliate himself. Families that have had no involvement with any groups, meanwhile, face the difficult task of proving the absence of any involvement. And this is compounded by the administrative problems in processing Syrian refugees: Different databases may transliterate Arabic names differently, making them hard to cross-check; some names may sound alike and lead to confusion of identity.”
Kathryn Sharpe of the Interfaith Coalition on Immigration thanked Governor Mark Dayton “for doing the right thing” by continuing to welcome refugees. “When we create a welcome,” she said, “it’s a welcome for all.”
Find out more / offer support
Want to know more about the refugee resettlement process? Here’s an overview from the American Immigration Council and another from the Advocates for Human Rights. And for a detailed discussion of the issues around the U.S. and Syrian refugees, I recommend Slamming the door on refugees won’t make us more secure, from the Advocates for Human Rights.
If you’d like to help with refugee resettlement, you can send donations to the International Institute of Minnesota. The Institute was flooded with in-kind donations, such as winter clothing and bedding, after a November appeal, so it is currently accepting only limited kinds of donations.
You can also contact U.S. Senators and Representatives about refugee policy. (State legislators and governors have nothing to do with this policy — all decisions are made on a federal level.) Minnesota’s 4th District [St. Paul] Congressional Representative Betty McCollum made a strong statement in support of refugees as she voted against fear-mongering legislation in November:
“The American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act (H.R. 4038) is a Republican ploy that is cruel, callous, and a blatant display of xenophobia used to energize a political base that is motivated by a hatred of immigrants. This legislation is not designed to protect our national security interests, but rather will be used as a political weapon …
“I support resettling refugees in the U.S. and I have always welcomed them to Minnesota. The most modern identification technology and intelligence background checks need to be utilized in the resettlement security process. …
“H.R. 4038 is an transparent effort to scapegoat Syrian and Iraqi refugees who have suffered immeasurably, but clearly not enough for some of my colleagues. I reject this Republican bill as another example of driving a political agenda based on willful ignorance in the face of a serious terrorist threat.”