President Donald Trump has defended his immigration bans by pointing to a need for "extreme vetting” of immigrants from Muslim-majority nations.
Abdul Kenj Halabi came to Madison from Syria in 1994, and is now a rheumatology and arthritis specialist at UW Health and a clinical associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. He’s a permanent resident of the U.S. and is at a loss when asked what additional vetting could be done to secure the safety of U.S. citizens.
“I am sure I have been vetted extensively; I can not imagine anything else,” he said. “What is it? What else could you do? I’m sure they have been into my phone book and email and Facebook accounts and everything has been looked at already.”
He also questions the entire purpose of vetting.
“Extreme vetting for what? When did a refugee hurt an American?” he said.
Madison-area refugee resettlement agencies agree that there is no reason to fear refugees and say they will continue their work of raising support and awareness for refugee communities in this country.
Open Doors for Refugees is a local nonprofit agency that provides material and logistical support in the Madison area. The organization released a statement about Trump's immigration ban on its Facebook page this weekend.
“Given the extreme vetting already in place, it’s also bereft of cause,” it said. “We have more work than ever as we begin to rebuild trust that the current refugee screening process is rigorous and that refugees in our community do not pose a threat."
The statement urged readers to contact their elected officials and said Open Doors will work harder than ever to continue welcoming refugees to Madison.
Erica Bouska is on the leadership council for Open Doors. She said the organization, which has over 700 people on the volunteer list, will continue to work with refugees who have already resettled here, as well as raise funds and awareness for refugees.
“We aren’t going to stop what we’re doing, it’s just that the act of resettlement that’s on hold,” she said.
The core goal is the same, she said.
“How do we work against hate? How do we work against racism and stereotyping? How do we make our city a more kind and open-hearted place?” Bouska said.
Bouska also leads a Girl Scout troop that has been preparing for refugees. They collected blankets as donations, learned about the refugee situation by watching documentaries and made welcoming signs in English and Arabic. When they found out all refugee entries were put on hold, they were devastated, Bouska said.
“What I want for our girls to remember is that in this time of our history that they were in the framework of helpers, that they were part of the team that tried,” Bouska said.
Jewish Social Services of Madison is a partner with Open Doors and Lutheran Social Services in a local refugee resettlement. In an effort that began last fall, the organizations originally planned to resettle 160 refugees from Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Eretria in the Madison area. Citizens from three of those countries are currently barred from entering the U.S., along with all refugees.
JSS was matched with four refugee families from Syria and Eritrea, all of which are now barred from entering the country. Dawn Berney, executive director of JSS, said her organization will continue to help resettle three families that have already been placed in Madison.
“That is not stopping,” she said “We will continue to educate people about the importance of welcoming refugees.”
In a statement released on their Facebook page on Saturday, JSS commented on the fact that the executive orders were signed on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“Many Jews also perished in the Holocaust because of immigration quotas during World War II,” the statement said. “The Torah teaches repeatedly that because of our history of enslavement we are obligated to welcome the stranger in our midst.”
Berney said that in her experience, refugees in Madison have simple desires.
“They’ve lost their homes, they’ve lost their country. They just want their children to be safe,” she said.
Halabi argues that individuals with refugee status don’t just deserve to be safe; they deserve fair treatment. He thinks when someone has been given a green card or refugee status, admitting them isn't just a moral issue.
“It’s already beyond that,” he said. “You cannot even claim that we admit them because of these values, we admit them because we are in a contract with them and they have fulfilled their part.”
They’ve been vetted, screened and been subject to intrusive and sometimes humiliating questioning. They’ve altered life plans, left their homes and sold their furniture. They’ve sunk substantial time, energy and money into the process, Halabi said.
“Admitting them is not an option, it’s an obligation,” he said. “Nobody’s asking you to be decent or gracious; that’s a choice. But we’re asking you to be legal and follow the law.”
His plans to visit family in Egypt and Saudi Arabia this summer are on hold.
“We are reevaluating our plans now, because, who knows?” he said.
In general, Halabi said his experience with a slow and intrusive American immigration process was very different from his experience with the American people. He’s always felt welcome here, and he loves Madison.
“The minute I left in 1994 and took the exit to the beltline, I felt at home. There are two places I would love to live in in the world. One is Madison and one is Syria.”
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