As national rhetoric around the acceptance or denial of Syrian refugees continues to swirl, Madison officials and community leaders are initiating a different dialogue — around acceptance, shared experience and personal stories.
District 5 Ald. Shiva Bidar-Sielaff plans to introduce a resolution at an upcoming City Council meeting affirming Madison’s support for welcoming Syrian refugees into the community. And on Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Paul Soglin hosted a meeting with about a dozen community members, most of them immigrants, to talk about United States immigration policy and treatment of immigrants.
“We don’t want fear to define us,” said Peng Her, a Hmong community leader who came to the U.S. in 1976 as a refugee from Laos. “Refugees bring more to this country than just our clothes.”
The conversation, which participants shared pieces of with reporters afterward, was held against the backdrop of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s rejection of Syrian refugees.
Last week, Walker joined more than half the nation’s governors in opposing the acceptance of Syrian refugees into their states following terrorist attacks in Paris. One attacker reportedly came into the country with Syrian immigrants using a fake Syrian passport.
"In consultation with our Adjutant General, who also serves as my Homeland Security Advisor, it is clear that the influx of Syrian refugees poses a threat,” Walker said in a statement. “With this in mind, I am calling upon the President to immediately suspend the program pending a full review of its security and acceptance procedures. The State of Wisconsin will not accept new Syrian refugees.”
District 17 Ald. Samba Baldeh said he has since heard from constituents who are concerned the state or cities won’t allow Syrian refugees in.
“We want to assure them that that will not happen as far as the city is concerned,” said Baldeh, who is originally from Gambia.
Tuesday’s conversation touched on the need to foster acceptance in children from a young age and to initiate open conversations in homes and other community spaces. There were no formal steps outlined for how to move forward, but Soglin said the group agreed it needs to start with sharing their stories.
He said they will figure out a way to formalize and record the experiences, possibly through video recordings. He and the alders who were at the table plan to look at the city budget to see where funding could come from, either from existing accounts or a special appropriation.
“There are people sitting at this table whose families had very dim prospects in their native land and made great sacrifices, including separation from their families and their ancestors to be here,” Soglin said. “And those are stories that need to be told, so that every time someone says, ‘We won’t admit an innocent Syrian refugee,’ they understand what that person’s story is and how that person should not be punished, they’ve already suffered enough.”