Leesburg Immigration Forum Strikes Hopeful Tone

“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.

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 during Sunday’s forum on immigration issues.

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, who left Somalia as a teenager, speaks during Sunday’s forum in Leesburg.

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.”

krodriguez@loudounnow.com

Rev. Debbie Dodson Parsons, of Leesburg Presbyterian Church, leads the crowd on song during Sunday’s immigration forum as County Chairwoman Phyllis Randall joins in.

7 thoughts on “Leesburg Immigration Forum Strikes Hopeful Tone

  • 2017-03-13 at 1:07 pm
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    Glad all the legal immigrants are here.

    Am I the only one who finds it odd that nobody asked the illegal immigrants to follow our immigration laws as they supposedly follow “all” the other laws of our country? Imagine the stories we could have heard from more legal immigrants if the illegal immigrants didn’t flood into our country. And then nobody would have to worry about having to follow the law …. because they all would already be following the law.

    Also, what kind of parent abandons their young child. Regardless of where we pitch our home, I cannot imagine voluntarily separating from my children. What kind of person does that? Especially if the child is a citizen and has a right of return after they grow up.

    • 2017-03-13 at 5:14 pm
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      As usual, Virginia_SGP, you are the voice of common sense. My husband was a resident alien for 33 years and finally obtained his citizenship last year. Over the years he had had no problems whatsoever because he entered the country legally and kept his paperwork in order.

  • 2017-03-13 at 2:37 pm
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    If all these people are citizens or legal residents, then what’s the issue? There is none. Why do people make up issues that don’t exist?

  • 2017-03-13 at 6:08 pm
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    Love, integrity, honesty, community, has no boundaries, borders, or limits. When everyone comes to the same point, and understands we are all the same, we have won the race. Hate does exist. Those who murder innocent people, who denigrate innocent people, who hate innocent people, are the road blocks to the future. As one said, a long time ago, together we stand, divided we fall,

    • 2017-03-13 at 10:04 pm
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      There are easily 500M Indians and 500M Chinese, many unskilled, who would gladly come into this country if we open the borders. Maybe they can all pitch a tent around your home and you will welcome them with open arms. If we are “all the same”, then surely you propose adding those 1B to our current 340M, right?

      We want talented legal immigrants to immigrate to the US. We certainly don’t mind taking a broad mix of all abilities. But the mass influx of unskilled labor who compete with citizens already having difficulty finding good-paying jobs and whose children receive more in services (education, healthcare) than native-born citizens is self-defeating. And should be stopped. We can bump up our annual quota from 1M to 1.5M easily but the focus has to be on skills and talent first.

      We understand why you want these unskilled immigrants – Democrat votes. Why can’t you be honest, Lawgh?

  • 2017-03-14 at 2:41 pm
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    I was at this meeting as a skeptical conservative. While the article is mostly accurate, what the master of ceremonies actually said about the sheriff and the police chief is that “they would not be enforcing immigration laws” to much applause. What she meant to say is that immigration laws are federal and enforced by federal agents although they get local help. I found the tone of the speakers defensive, defiant, and self pityingly. Not one offered thanks for the U.S. offering them a welcoming place to immigrate to. They seemed to feel that they were entitled to be here and we should be grateful for them being here. The crowd loved it. I suspect this is what a Hillary Clinton rally looked like only with better attendance.

  • 2017-03-14 at 3:28 pm
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    Thanks for the inside scoop Dmobray. I’m still trying to figure out what the issue is.

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