On a day when Americans honored the nation’s war dead, local peace activists broadened Monday’s focus to also commemorate refugees who’ve experienced the destruction of war.
The theme for the Orange County Peace Coalition’s annual Memorial Day Commemoration was “hearing the voiceless,” the millions of Middle Eastern refugees whom organizers describe as the victims of war. Organizers said it’s the duty of the United States to help these refugees resettle in new homes and to help restore their homelands.
“Our fight today is for peace,” said Jan Broughton, co-chair of the Orange County Peace Coalition. “Our commitment is to justice for people who have served and compassion for those who have survived great loss.”
Monday’s commemoration, in front of an audience around 100 people at Extraordinary Ventures in Chapel Hill, took place amid a time of debate in North Carolina and the nation about what to do with refugees, particularly those who’ve fled Syria.
After a series of fatal attacks in 2015 blamed on radical Muslims in Tennessee, California and France, presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the United States. More than half the nation’s governors, including Gov. Pat McCrory, have asked the federal government to suspend resettlement of Syrian refuges, most of whom are presumed to be Muslims.
In May, a bill was introduced in the state House that would allow local governments to opt out of taking in refugees if they “lack capacity.” Local governments would also have to hold a public hearing and document their extra capacity in order to take additional refugees.
Municipal leaders in Chapel Hill and Carrboro have voiced support for taking in Syrian refugees. Those positions are an inspiration for cities across the state, according to Manzoor Cheema, co-founder of Muslims For Social Justice and a member of the Movement to End Racism and Islamophobia.
Cheema, the event’s main speaker, attributed much of the Middle East’s current problems to the destabilization caused by the 2003 invasion of Iraq led by U.S. forces. Cheema called the War on Terror “an unmitigated disaster for people in the Middle East and the Muslim world” that has led to extremist groups gaining power.
“Syrian refugees, the refugees from Afghanistan or other parts of the world who are coming, we have an obligation because we have created conditions for them to flee in the first place,” said Cheema, a Pakistani native who now lives in Raleigh. “We had a major role.”
Many of the participants at Monday’s event, including Cheema, are also active in the Moral Monday protests against the General Assembly’s actions. Cheema drew links between America’s wars abroad and local legislation requiring voter registration and against Sharia law, abortion access and gay rights.
“The same forces who are marginalizing and oppressing other kinds of communities are also attacking Muslims,” Cheema said. “Our only way is to fight back and to unify.”
The ceremony didn’t ignore servicemen and servicewomen who died serving their country. A moment of silence was held for those who had died since the last Memorial Day commemoration.
“The procession of flag-draped coffins is endless,” said U.S. Army veteran Barry Reece of Fearrington Village in Pittsboro, as he recited one of his poems. “A grieving mother stands near an open grave. The echo of ‘Taps’ marks the end of another soldier’s life.”