“This is my home.”
It was a phrase repeated emphatically over and over again Sunday night during an immigration and refugee forum organized by nonprofit organization Loudoun Interfaith BRIDGES and the local faith community.
In a standing-room-only sanctuary at St. James’ Episcopal Church in downtown Leesburg, it was a role reversal of sorts. Public and government officials, along with many community members, sat and listened while the immigrant and refugee community shared their insight on the current national climate.
Among the attendees were Loudoun Sheriff Michael Chapman and Leesburg Police Chief Gregory Brown, who were applauded when emcee Rev. Anya Sammler-Michael, of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Sterling, assured the audience that they enforcement of immigration laws as a federal, not local, responsibility.
There was palpable fear, anxiety and worry expressed by those who shared their stories before the packed crowd. Those who spoke represented a mix of the immigrant and refugee communities. They included citizens or legal residents, many of whom had acquired higher education degrees since they came to the U.S., and those who had raised children who went through college. Some were proud business owners, employing dozens of workers. And all were voices or advocates for those in their own communities, some of whom are afraid to go to work or leave their homes because of the crackdown on illegal immigration nationwide.
Eva Maria Torres Herrera, a native of Mexico whose father was born in the U.S., said the pain Latino immigrants are currently facing is “extreme.”
She said her father would always speak so highly of America on his visits there before his family moved here, and he raised his children to respect the American flag.
“I don’t know what is going on now but I am sure that we can build bridges,” she said.
Adan Cortez also shared his family’s pain, with his cousins recently approaching him about caring for their young children in the event they were deported. And his 6-year-old nephew, who was born in the U.S., expressing his fears that he, too, would be sent away.
“Imagine being at work but you’re afraid of going home,” he said. “The uncertainty is very painful.”
Wasim Entabi, a native of Syria, said those fears are also very real in his community, which has come under considerable scrutiny. He noted that he had hoped to bring with him a refugee family willing to share their story, but he had no takers.
“Not a single family was willing to come speak out. They’re scared to death,” he said.
Those who are here legally, and even U.S. citizens, have also felt uncomfortable as the topic of immigration and travel restrictions have come into the limelight.
“I never expected it would come to this,” said Nitin Dogra, a Hindu who came to the U.S. for higher education and is a legal resident. He said many legal residents have cancelled trips abroad for fear that they won’t be let back into the country, even though they are here legally.
But he and the others who spoke struck a hopeful tone, as they looked out into the audience at the sea of faces of people of different religious backgrounds, races, and ethnicities who showed their support. Hugs and handshakes were offered among strangers, applause and shows of support were aplenty, and a convivial atmosphere ended the ceremony when Rev. Debbie Dodson Parsons, of Leesburg Presbyterian Church, invited some reluctant audience members up to dance.
“Standing here I can truly feel we are family,” Dogra said.
Amani Swadek, a native of Libya who has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years and raised a son here, told stories of strangers reaching out to show their support. Swadek, who wears a hijab, recalled the day after Election Day when two older men wearing hats indicating they were military veterans made derogatory remarks toward her at a Starbucks. A solider in military fatigues stood up for her, and the manager asked the men to leave. A week later, she was sitting at a restaurant when a stranger came up to her, handed her a $5 bill, and also handed one to every non-white person sitting in the restaurant.
“You’re welcome here,” he told her, and said he was handing out the $5 bill to symbolize President Abraham Lincoln’s commitment to freedom for all.
Anab Ali left Somalia as a teenager, and then came to the U.S. after spending time working in the United Arab Emirates.
“America was calling me,” she said. “It was that beacon of hope.”
Now, almost 30 years later, Ali has become a registered nurse, worked at the VA Hospital for a decade, and opened her own home health care business in Ashburn that has been in operation for 10 years. She has also raised three daughters who have gone on to college. Ali noted that if the upcoming travel ban were in place when she was trying to come to America, she wouldn’t be here today.
“This is my home,” she said. “I’m here to stay.”