Durham refugee resettlement organization highlights reduction in federal funding
Belew Hailu came to the United States from Ethiopia seeking freedom and opportunities for his two children.
“The refugee program saved my life and gave me another chance,” he told community members recently at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church.
But, Hailu has another son in Ethiopia.
For years, he has waited for the green light to bring his child to the United States.
His story echoes that of many others hoping to resettle in the United States, especially in recent years. Under President Trump, the cap on annual refugee admissions has fallen from 50,000 people in fiscal year 2017 to 45,000 in 2018, to 30,000 this year.
In front of Duke Memorial last week, refugee, church and community leaders assembled to call on the Trump administration to let more refugees in.
‘When America promises something’
As the refugee ceiling has dropped, many former refugees in the Triangle, like Hailu, have felt the impact.
“We have many members of our congregation who haven’t seen their children or their family members for years,” said Ahmadu Lee, masjid administrator at Jamaat Ibad Ar-Rahman in Durham.
Family is the base of one’s life, be it in American society or societies around the world, said Kokou Nayo, an organizer for humanitarian group Church World Service. Nayo, who headed Wednesday’s event, added that without family, “you are empty.”
The federal government has said the historically low refugee ceiling reflects a need to address hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers who have already arrived at the border.
“This year’s refugee ceiling reflects the substantial increase in the number of individuals seeking asylum in our country, leading to a massive backlog of outstanding asylum cases and greater public expense,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a press conference last September.
Seven years ago, Safia Mohammad left Afghanistan. Now, she’s a student at Durham Technical Community College who would like to become a social worker.
“Here in the U.S., we have the freedom to live our lives without fear,” she said. “Nobody wants to leave their country without reason. People leave their countries because something is bad.”
Mohammad, like other speakers, urged Congress to ensure the 30,000 cap was filled. Ahead of the halfway point of fiscal year 2019, Nayo said that the country was on track to bring in just 21,000 refugees.
“When America promises something, it always happens,” he said. “I am hopeful that the promise of 30,000 refugees will be fulfilled by the end of this fiscal year.”
Solidarity in faith
Methodist, Presbyterian and Muslim faith leaders spoke in turn in front of the church.
“We are mindful in the Christian traditions, oh God, of the ways that when you come to your people, you yourself come as an immigrant,” said Cullen McKenney, a minister at Duke Memorial.
Mindy Douglas, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Durham, said hospitality is the “touchstone” of all major religions. She recalled an “exclusive and xenophobic” billboard put up by the North Carolina Pastors’ Network in 2017 which leveraged the September 11 attacks for an anti-immigration message.
In response, the North Carolina Council of Churches, which Douglas is president of, put up a billboard on the same highway strip quoting a Bible verse: “Welcome the stranger, for you were once a stranger.”
“In our religion ... Allah told us, I could’ve made you all [under] one nation, but I choose to make you different so you can learn from one another,” said Lee. “If we don’t come together, we can’t learn from one another.”
Community organizer Allison Mahaley, who works with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, pointed during Wednesday’s rally at the faces of the 60 people behind her. She urged community members and the administration not to look on one another with fear, but with love.
“If we listen to the writings of Hebrew scripture, the writings of the New Testament, and the basic tenets of all our major religions, we know we are called to love our neighbor,” Douglas said. “We are called to love our strangers who will one day become friends.”
In an interview with The News and Observer, Nayo added that hitting the cap is not enough, given the treatment of refugees under the current administration.
“From 2017 with Trump to today, we can see a gradual shrink of refugee admission to the United States,” he said. “If we don’t do something now, more people are going to be hurt.”
Nayo said those committed to the cause should call their representatives in Congressmen, he said. Those not convinced should talk to a refugee.
“See if that person really is that bad person that they are made to be,” he said. “Once you talk to them, you’ll see they have the same values as Americans do. So there’s no real difference, except where they’re born.”