About 250 people gathered at Haddad Riverfront Park Tuesday afternoon and pledged they would show love and compassion for Syrian refugees.
Speakers listed reasons for allowing the Syrian refugees, who are fleeing the devastation of civil war in their country, into the United States and West Virginia:
n They noted that while a fake Syrian passport was found near one of the attacker’s bodies in Paris last Friday, the attacker has not been identified as Syrian. National media outlets have reported the terrorist posed as a refugee and took advantage of screening measures much looser than those in the United States to enter the country.
n Speakers noted that the background checks the United States requires of refugees are the most stringent checks of any traveler to the United States. The process typically takes 18 to 24 months.
n They also noted that as West Virginia continues to lose population, the state could benefit from the contributions of an immigrant population, just as the country has since its inception.
But the common theme that emerged was a more spiritual reason for accepting refugees — the recognition of Syrians’ shared humanity, and the universal oneness that encompasses each citizen of the world.
“We are called here to speak for people who have left their homes in Syria, not because they wanted to, but because they are fleeing a kind of violence and threats that many of use cannot even imagine,” said Reverend Patricia Hart of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation. “We are here today because we’ve heard some stories and seen their faces. We have wept for their children and their elders and their families, remembering our own. These people we speak for, we call them Syrians, we call them refugees, we call them migrants, but they are people first of all.”
Numerous governors have said they won’t accept Syrian refugees into their states, although legal experts have said states do not have that authority. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has declined to say he would attempt to do so.
At the rally on Tuesday, supporters denounced some of the positions and language they’ve seen from those who oppose Syrian immigration while recognizing that it comes from fear.
Standing across the street from two counter-protestors, Joe Solomon, one of the organizers, said he has faith in his fellow West Virginians.
“This isn’t a question of love versus fear,” he said. “This isn’t a question of love versus hate, because all of our friends who are spreading fear on Facebook or online, you know very well that if they saw a fleeing refugee, a mother or a child fleeing for their lives right here on that sidewalk, right here, they would open their arms, they would open their hearts. We know they would.”
“We all have the same hearts.”
Genevieve Ireland, a 7th grade student at John Adams Middle School, compared her life in Charleston to the more difficult lives led by Syrian children.
“My brother and I like to tease my mom (Charleston City Councilwoman Karan Ireland) about being overprotective,” she said. “I can barely walk down the street to Walgreens because my mom worries about me being safe. But there are children just like me living in a country full of terrible violence, kids who have to deal with the deaths of friends and family members. Can you imagine how afraid those kids are, how worried their parents are about their safety? It’s hard to even think about but we should be doing more than thinking about it. We should be helping refugees.”
Genevieve said she hopes to travel the world when she grows up.
“I hope that when I’m ready to explore, the world will be a much safer and more peaceful place,” she said. “We should always do our part to make it that way and keep our hearts open, our minds open, and our arms open to our brothers and sisters around the world.”
Reverend Roberta Smith, president of the Charleston Black Ministerial Alliance, said that the fear of refugees seems to be misplaced.
“They say we are afraid that the Syrian refugees might have a terrorist hidden among them, but a lot can be said about the terrorists that live in America and kill Americans,” she said. “Be more afraid of those who walk around every day saying mean and hurtful things to one another and have the right to purchase the firepower to back it up.”
Dr. Sameh Asal of the Islamic Association of West Virginia was warmed to see the crowd standing in the cold to show support for those of the Muslim community -- a community that has been the target of even more misunderstanding than usual in recent days.
“I would love to assure you that we as your Muslim neighbors, we love you all, and we stand together in the face or terrorism, regardless of the faith, regardless of the culture, regardless of the background,” he said.
“We’re here to show the world what makes America America,” he said. “We’re here to show that America has always been opening arms for people who are refugees and people in need. Brother and sister, we all belong to one human family that descends from one father and one mother.”
Ibtesam Sue Barazi, a Syrian immigrant who has lived in West Virginia since 1975, also noted that most Muslims do not condone violence.
“Terrorism is a modern day cancer for mankind and we must speak out against it in all its forms,” she said. “Islam as a religion condemns the taking of life and equates the taking of one person to the killing of all mankind.
“We believe in standing up to the likes of ISIS,” she said. “They call themselves Islamic state. They’re nothing that has any commonality with Islam at all.”
Many speakers also noted that America is a nation of immigrants.
“Immigrants like my family are the backbone of this country,” Barazi said. “All of us here come initially from somewhere in this world, and so this is what built America, their hard work, their tears, their sweat and they made this country the great country that it is today.”
One of the counter-protestors, Brenda Arthur, of Charleston, said the nation’s history of immigration does not excuse immigrants using America’s social services safety net.
“That is an old, tired story,” she said, referring to the argument that the country is made up of immigrants.
Supporters held hands at the end of the rally and made a pledge, led by Nahla Nimeh-Lewis.
“Not in my name,” they said. “Not on my watch, and never again.”
“And now in conclusion, we are going to be joyful, and we are going to play some music,” Nimeh-Lewis said.