“Say no to racist fear, refugees are welcome here!”
To protest Governor Charlie Baker’s rejection of Syrian refugees in a statement on Monday, Nov. 16, following the Paris terrorist attacks that killed nearly 130 people, over 1,000 people gathered outside the Massachusetts State House this past Friday, Nov. 20 at 6:30 p.m., chanting this slogan.
The rally was organized by the International Socialist Organization of Boston, an organization that believes in a world without borders and a world without war, according to Khury Petersen-Smith (M.A.T. ’08), an organizer of the event.
Throughout the night, individuals from various organizations spoke of their personal experiences as refugees or immigrants, or expressed their solidarity with the Syrian people. The purpose of the rally was twofold: to send a message both to refugees and to the people who attended, according to Petersen-Smith.
“If the people come out tonight and join with hundreds of others, and realize that we have a power as ordinary people who are united around anti-Islamophobia and anti-racism and the rights of refugees, if people leave feeling more empowered in the fight, that would be a huge success,” Petersen-Smith said.
He added his wishes for current refugees t0 feel welcomed rather than ostracized.
“I hope that this rally today says to the people both who are already here and want to come here, ‘you’re welcome here, you belong here,’” he said.
Basma Alloush, a Syrian asylum seeker, spoke at the rally of the “double oppression” that refugees are faced with, because they have no place to call home and nowhere to go.
“I felt that the one thing that was missing was the mention of Assad, no one has really talked about him,” she told the Daily after her speech. “The reason why ISIS has been propped up to be as horrible as it is is because Assad has been given free room to reign and commit all kinds of murders and atrocities as he chooses without any repercussions from the international community.”
Alloush, who has lived in Boston for nine years, did her undergraduate studies at Northeastern University, and is currently a student at the Fletcher School studying human security and transitional justice.
“Being in Boston for nine years, I did not expect that hate that came out of Governor Baker,” she said.
Due to her father’s job as a diplomat, Alloush left Syria when she was around three years old, but often returned back to the country. Now, however, that is no longer a possibility.
“After the uprising happened, it was really difficult for me to go back because I had been here and I had nowhere to go to,” she said. “My parents had fled so there was no place for me to go.”
Despite this, Alloush said that she would “100 percent” want to go back to Syria.
Though Alloush is not an American citizen, she feels a connection to the city and calls Boston her home.
“To have that kind of resentment coming out of him was extremely hurtful and extremely offensive,” Alloush said. “In my heart of hearts I feel like it was just a reaction to what happened in Paris because of ISIS. It’s very short sighted. I hope he takes it back but I am really disappointed.”
Among the protesters were several Tufts undergraduates who attended individually.
“I think it is important that we speak out against the overt bigotry and xenophobia of our elected officials,” Noah Habeeb, a senior majoring in International Relations and Spanish said. “Participating in [nonviolent direct actions] can be liberating in it of itself, to take it to the streets.“
Other students noted the positive feelings throughout the rally.
“It’s a really clichéd word, but it was empowering to be physically showing your support for something,” first-year Maria Grant said. “A lot of it was moving to hear about people’s experiences. There wasn’t any animosity towards Republicans, it was less of a thing against the G.O.P and more in solidarity with refugees and immigrants.”
“The sense of love and community was so palpable,” another first-year, Maia Tarnas said. “The speakers were fantastic and quite powerful. This issue is so personal to so many people. It was incredible to see so many people from such different walks of life coming together in solidarity.”
For Grant, a speech made by Ibrahim Rashid, a student from Boston University, was particularly powerful to her.
“I’m a Muslim, but I’m also a human being,” Ibrahim said at the rally.
Disagreeing with Baker’s statements on Monday, several protesters pointed to an anti-Islam bias as the underlying reason behind his words.
“The reality of the situation is that the Syrian civil war has allowed for a vacuum in which foreign fighters from other countries, like ISIS, can fight their ideological war in Syria, which is detrimental to the Syrian people, so the refugees have nothing to do with ISIS, and it’s an absurdity to insist that they do,” Habeeb said.
“Racism and xenophobia are not new in U.S. history,” Petersen-Baker said. “If you think in the 14 years after 9/11, everyday we’ve heard the dehumanization of Muslims and Arabs in the media, and I think that the fear of Muslim refugees is the product of that.”
Furthermore, according to a Nov. 16 article in the Boston Globe, lawyers said that under the Refugee Act of 1980, governors cannot legally block refugees from their states.
“Even if [Governor Baker’s] word has no policy ramification, it still creates a hateful climate that is really disheartening,” Habeeb said.
Others agreed with Habeeb‘s sentiment.
“The opinion polls have certainly spiked in favor of rejecting refugees since the Paris attacks, but many Americans were already opposed to accepting Syrian refugees before the events of last Friday,” Laura Graham, lecturer of Peace and Justice Studies, told the Daily in an email. “This probably reflects wider anti-Islam sentiment, particularly amongst more conservative elements of American society.”
According to a Nov. 23 story on Boston Herald, Baker stated that he has reached out to federal officials and hopes to get more information on the vetting process for Syrian refugees. Such a process, Petersen-Smith said, adds to the dehumanization of Muslims and justification of U.S. violence in the Middle East and more policing.
“It’s a conversation that treats these people not has human beings who need to flee a bad situation and desire to come to this country, it treats them like a potentially violent threat,” he said.
For some, one point of contention is that America is a country based in immigration.
“The process for seeking asylum is robust and Homeland Security is quite capable of adequately vetting all refugees before they enter the U.S.,” Graham wrote. “If anything, there is evidence from other refugee groups in the U.S. to point towards the assumption that Syrian refugees will only better the community they settle in and bring valuable skill sets in our economy.”
According to the Nov. 16 Boston Globe story, the U.S. has admitted 2,159 Syrian refugees since October 2011, including 72 in Massachusetts.
Graham commented on the human rights implications involved in turning away refugees.
“There is no doubt that refugees have already suffered serious violations of their human rights, and rejecting asylum seekers may violate Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘Everybody has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution,’” Graham said.
She also pointed out the hypocrisy promoted by this position.
“I find it particularly distasteful when politicians give speeches about the need to strengthen human rights in other parts of the world, but yet they cannot uphold the most basic human rights that all are entitled to at their own front door,” she said.
Weighing in on the European perspective, Associate Professor of Political Science Kelly Greenhill, who specializes in International Relations and Security Studies, wrote a Nov. 16 op-ed for the New York Times. She argued that banning refugees would not solve any of the problems currently being discussed.
“Tightening migration policies would do nothing to address the fundamental underlying causes of terrorist attacks: namely, the appeal of radicalization to a small, but committed, segment of the marginalized and disaffected already living within the European Union, many of whom are citizens,” Greenhill wrote.
Noting that this rally is just the beginning of a much bigger movement, Petersen-Smith is grateful for those who came out to the protest.
“This rally, in the grand scheme of things, might not be a big deal in the world, but I do think the people who come out today are saying we want to be on the right side of history,” Petersen-Smith said.
In the meantime, Habeeb suggested some other ways to get involved on the issue.
“I would encourage everybody… to call your representatives and let them know how you feel about this issue,” he said. “When the sheer number of people calling is high, that influences policy.”
Overall, Alloush thought the protest was a beautiful event and was happy to see so many people in support for Syrian refugees.
“It really speaks for itself seeing all these people here support refugees, supporting everybody,” she said. “It’s just so much love, it’s nothing I wouldn’t expect out of a Boston community.”