Hundreds of people gathered in New York City’s Columbus Circle on December 10 to show solidarity with Middle Eastern refugees and to demand that the United States government allow entry to as many refugees as possible.
“This gathering is in reaction to the recent hearing that took place on November 19, 2015, where the U.S. House of Representatives passed the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act of 2015 or the American SAFE Act of 2015 (H.R. 4038),” organizers stated in a press release. “This bill makes it harder for refugees to enter the U.S. by requiring background checks by not just the Department of Homeland Security but also the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Director of National Intelligence. Since the aftermath of 9/11 – increased ‘security’ has only left the Muslim/Arab community in fear of government officials.”
Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, people from conflict-ridden areas in Syria and Iraq have fled their countries seeking safety from the violence. To date, over four million people have left Syria, with most staying in nearby countries like Turkey and Jordan. Others have sought asylum in Europe and the United States. This, along with fear and anti-Muslim bigotry provoked by recent attacks by ISIS-affiliated shooters in Paris and San Bernardino, has caused many right-wing parties and politicians in Western countries to gain in popularity. The right-wing reaction has also become more extreme.
Even more so than the passing of the American SAFE Act of 2015, people at Thursday’s protest seemed to have been drawn out in response to recent statements by Republican presidential front-runner, Donald Trump, in which he called “for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Throughout the rally, the crowd shouted chants like “There is no debate! Trump equals hate!” and “Donald Trump, don’t you hear? Refugees are welcome here!” The rally took place in the middle of Columbus Circle right across the street from Trump Tower.
“While people say that Trump is a problem, is it really Trump that’s the problem?” asked Jamila Hammami, one of the organizers and a member of the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project. “I think it’s a systemic issue of America.”
Activists from over 50 organizations were present and spoke about increased xenophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry since the Paris attacks, why it’s important to show solidarity with refugees, and the need for the United States government to both stop its interventions in the Middle East and accept even more refugees.
“At present, the U.S. government has agreed to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. This is not enough. We demand that the US government accept more refugees from Syria and Iraq without intense background checks and to provide adequate resources and social services to these newly resettled refugees,” organizers stated in the press release. “Further, we demand that the U.S. and all other governments cease their interventions in the Middle East and North Africa and their support of human rights abuses by repressive regimes.”
Regarding recent incidents of anti-Muslim bigotry, including a sixth grade girl in the Bronx being attacked by other students who called her “ISIS” and a severed pig’s head being thrown at the door of a Philadelphia mosque, Hammami stated that she hoped that the rally would also help combat the fear currently being felt by Muslims.
“These are repetitions of what happened after 9/11, but everyone in the Muslim community has all agreed that this is actually significantly worse than what it was after 9/11, and there’s a lot of fear that we have,” she said. “So our hope is for there not to be fear amongst us.”
The rally lasted for about two hours and ended with the words of Assata Shakur and songs by the Peace Poets. Organizers also announced that another protest would be held the following day outside the Plaza Hotel where Trump will be speaking to raise funds for Pennsylvania’s Republican Party. Before all of that though, a Syrian refugee, a middle-aged man wrapped in the Syrian Independence flag, thanked the crowd with the help of a translator.
“I’m Muslim. I’m Sunni. I’m not a terrorist! We suffered a lot at the hands of ISIS and the [Bashar al-Assad] regime,” he said. “Yes we left Syria, but we will go back. I left because of my kids, to guarantee a better future for them, but Syria will always stay in my heart and the revolution will always stay in my heart. Thank you for your solidarity with Syrians and the Syrian revolution!”