International Panel Talks Immigration, Refugee ‘Travel Ban’

Last Monday, residents of Boston gathered in District Hall to discuss the current state of the global refugee crisis, the U.S. refugee resettlement program, and the status of the “Travel Ban,” President Trump enacted one year ago.

The event, “Uniting For Refugees: Marking One Year Since President Trump’s Travel Ban,” was hosted by Oxfam, an international confederation of charitable organizations focused on the alleviation of global poverty and social injustice.

The night featured a panel discussion along with the art exhibit The Museum Without a Home. Panelists included Susan Cohen, an attorney from the Mintz Levin law firm and chair of the firm’s immigration practice; Jeffrey Thielman, president and CEO of the International Institute of New England; Cynthia Gabriel Walsh, senior director of the Organizing and Activism Unit for Amnesty International; and Isra Chaker, Syrian American and refugee campaign leader for Oxfam America.

Abby Maxman, the president and CEO of Oxfam America had a simple message: refugees are welcome.

She stressed that the fight against global poverty and inequality is more relevant today than ever, and the need for informed citizens to advocate for refugees and humanitarian aid is vital.

“Our country now accepts the lowest number of refugees in the history of our resettlement program,” Maxman said. “Yet, at the very same time, the world is facing an unprecedented global displacement crisis.”

There are more than 22 million refugees in the world today and 65 million people are displaced by conflict. More than half of them are children. And yet, said Maxman, President Trump set the refugee cap this year at a mere 45,000—less than half of what has been set by his predecessors from both parties.

Executive Order 13769, what became known as the “Travel Ban” or the “Muslim Ban,” was signed into effect last January. The order banned entry to the United States by all citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.

Public outcry was immediate, and the next day protests broke out on city streets and outside of airports nationwide. In Boston, thousands gathered in Copley Square and Logan Airport to support immigrants.

“My first reaction was this can’t stand,” Cohen said. “The order was blatantly illegal in so many ways. It was very clear to me that a lawyer had not been involved in writing it.”

Cohen immediately got to work, and with the American Civil Liberties Union, was able to secure a court hearing. Coincidentally, this was the same night of her best friend’s birthday party.

“My shoes were off and I was dancing when I got the phone call that the judge was ready,” joked Cohen. “So I raced home, put on something more conservative, and ran straight to the courthouse.”

But missing the party was worth it. At around 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 29, just two days after the order was passed, the judge passed a temporary halt to the travel ban.

Like Cohen, when Isra Chaker heard about the order, her immediate reaction was utter shock.

As a Syrian American with family still overseas, “My heart stopped,” Chaker said. “I felt like I was constantly on edge last year. I was constantly paranoid, in fear of something happening to me, something happening to my family.”

The night ended with panelists urging the audience to stay active. “We do have quite a fight ahead of us, but we have to stay strong and show that there are more of us than them, and this climate of fear, hatred and bigotry is not going to be tolerated,” Gabriel said.

“The best way to help is to stay involved with this issue,” Thielman said. “We can’t let immigration fall off of the radar. Stay engaged, stay involved, and stay educated.”

Afterwards, audience members viewed the exhibit The Museum Without a Home and listened to a performance by Chadwick Stokes, a local musician.

Stokes is also the co-founder of the organization Calling All Crows, which partners with musicians and fans to create change through hands on service and activism. He performed two original pieces, “Keepsake” and “All My Possessions Inside.”

Upon first glance, the objects displayed in the exhibit may seem ordinary or even insignificant to viewers. But to their recipients, these objects are priceless.

A black and yellow jump rope from Greece. A handmade toy car from Central African Republic. A powder blue baby blanket from Italy. A soccer ball covered in signatures and scribbles from the United States.

All of the items featured were given by ordinary people from all over the world to refugees, both as a gesture of solidarity and to help provide them with comfort in their new homes.

The museum arrived from Athens, where it was first created as an initiative by the Greek section of Amnesty International and Oxfam in 2016.

It has since expanded to celebrate the inclusivity communities have shown all around the world to immigrants.

Featured Image by Isabel Fenoglio / Heights Editor