Fugees Family United!

Refugee kids find a home with their team and their coach

 Their school finds a home with a United Methodist Church

“There was this one time,” remembers  Asad, a lanky 15-year old from Sudan,  “we were winning and that made the other team mad. ‘Go back to where you came from!’ they yelled at us. One of my teammates was wearing a hijab and they called her a terrorist. That really affected me, you know, because I am a Muslim. And I am a refugee.”

Asad takes a break from the soccer game.

“We could have reacted badly,” he adds, “but we knew we couldn’t let them get into our heads or we would lose the game. So we just walked away and let it go.”

Asad is as quick with his smile as he is with his feet. But he, like so many of his teammates, is a child survivor of war. He has lost much of his childhood to that war.

“I have had a hard life,” he acknowledges matter-of-factly. “But now I try to use my experiences as lessons to help me stay off the bad lane in life, and as a way to move on.”

He looks to his teammates, many of whom have witnessed horrors equal to his.

“I think,” he says thoughtfully, “that soccer has taught us peace.”

Summertime

On one end is the Washington Monument. On the other is the alabaster-white dome of the U.S. Capitol. In the grassy mall that lies between them, on a day shimmering with heat, the kids are playing soccer.

Some of the players—there are both boys and girls—come from the Northern Virginia suburbs. They have uniforms and proper footwear. They love soccer, and it shows. They are very good.

And then there are the Fugees, invited guests of the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival, whose inspirational story is now part of the Many Voices, One Nation exhibit at the National Museum of American History.

The Fugees Family are a team made up of refugee kids, hailing from some of the most troubled spots in the world today: Sudan, Burma, Iraq, Syria.  One girl plays in a hijab. The boys are playing barefoot. These teens also love soccer. And they are also very good.

Visitors to the festival stop to watch the game, and the kids among them are invited to join the Fugee team. One teenaged boy immediately takes off his sneakers so he can play barefoot, too.

“All right!” he shouts after his teammate—originally from Thailand—scores a goal. They grin and high five each other.

The kids of summer play soccer on the Washington Mall.

Their coach, Luma Mufleh, an asylee and immigrant from Jordan, watches from the sidelines. “Put them on a field and let them play,” she says.  “At the end of this, they’ll be exchanging Facebook profiles.”

Ala kaffi el Qadar numshi wa la nudri ‘An el Maktoob

(On the palm of fate we walk and do not know what is written)

You may already know something of the Fugees Family and their remarkable coach. They have been the subject of numerous news stories, videos, TV shows, and a 2009 book, optioned for a film by Universal Studios in Hollywood. Coach Luma was one of CNN’s Top Ten Heroes of 2016. This year she has her own Ted Talk.

Clarkson Citizenship class. Photo courtesy of America by the Numbers.

You may also have heard of their hometown, Clarkston, Georgia, the “Ellis Island of the South.” With its access to public transportation, close proximity to Atlanta, and affordable apartment complexes ready to be occupied, Clarkston was identified as an ideal refugee resettlement hub in the 1980s.

Refugees from 50 different countries have made Clarkston their first American home. Today, the town welcomes 1,500 refugees a year; half of its 13,000 residents are refugees. It truly is the “most diverse square mile in America.”

“The only place I’ve experienced this kind of diversity,” Luma says, “is in New York City.”

It was this diversity which led Luma to Clarkston one day in 2004 on a search for authentic pita—the kind she remembered from her childhood. She took a wrong turn and came upon some refugee boys playing soccer with rocks as goal posts and a sorry excuse for a ball.  Luma had a better one in the trunk of her car. She used it to entice the boys to let her play with them.

And so it began. Luma formed a soccer team for refugee boys. She then started helping them with their homework, getting to know their families, and worrying about their struggles against poverty and gang violence. Are they going to have a meal when they get home? Are they going to be jumped for their soccer cleats walking back to their apartment complex? How far behind will they fall in their studies?

Luma decided to start a school—an academy—for child survivors of war.

Was that wrong turn written on her own palm of fate? Was it destiny? Could Luma have had any idea how much her life—and the lives of so many refugee kids and their families—would change from a simple and unexpected game of soccer?

No one is left behind

Coach Luma’s plan for a Fugee academy—small classes, remediation, social integration, and soccer at its core—found a home at Clarkston’s First United Methodist Church.  The students occupy 90 percent of the church building space during the school year. They need all this room and more; there is a long waiting list of kids who want to come to the Fugee Academy.

The changes Clarkston has undergone in the last 30 years are reflected in this church; its once all-white congregation has shrunken dramatically, the remaining original parishioners now quite elderly.

Along with the church’s traditional English service, there is also one for their Eritrean brethren. An additional five congregations of other denominations hold services at the First UMC; one Burundian, one Nepalese, and three Burmese.

“On any given Sunday,” says Pastor Karen Lyon, “we have services in this church from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. And everyone is welcome here.”

Pastor Lyon recently completed her own Doctorate of Ministry, and she credits the Fugee students as a source of inspiration. “When you are in the presence of these kids, and you see their hunger for learning, their discipline—they are often in school from 7:30 in the morning until 7:30 at night—yes,” she states emphatically, “they encouraged me to study harder.

“They are one great family,” she adds.  “No one is left behind. They know all too well what it feels like to be left behind.”

 Epilogue

The game is over. Members of the Fugee team are gathered under a tent, water bottles in hand, speaking to an audience of festival visitors.  They answer questions and share their opinions about the museums they’ve visited and their favorite subjects in school. They share memories of arriving in a new country, one with leafy trees and weird food. They admit to struggles to learn English and new customs.

Mostly, though, they talk about being part of the Fugee family, of belonging to each other, to the team, and to their coach.

Life is good.

Photo courtesy of the Fugees Family. Coach Luma (center) with some of her kids. There are currently 83 students from grades 6 – 12, each grade reflecting the resettlement influx of that year; Afghanistan, Sudan, Burma, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo. The 6th grade class this year is predominantly from Syria.

 

* Coach Luma plans to open a Fugee academy in Columbus, Ohio in 2018 and a few more in Midwestern towns where there are refugee resettlement hubs.  All of them will follow the Fugees model so kids can have “this experience of being welcomed, wanted, and loved.”

To read more or to help them with this project, please visit the Fugees Family

 

Asylum

 Emily Kvalheim of South Florida Justice for our Neighbors helps abused and neglected children find safety in the United States. 

A couple of months ago, a 12-year-old client and I sat down at the large, wooden desk in the middle of our small office. We were coloring pictures from a Dora the Explorer coloring book. Even as an adult, I find that coloring can relieve stress, and I hoped it would do the same for the young girl who sat next to me.

Emily and one of her youngest clients take a break from Immigration Court to look at the Miami River and skyline.

We began talking about school. She told me about her classes and that she was studying hard to learn English because she wanted to be a doctor one day. We bonded over our love of animals.

She told me about her life in El Salvador. I did my best to let her direct our conversation.

Soon I learned that her grandpa often got drunk and said he wanted to rape her.

Soon I was getting up to grab a box of tissues and a bottle of water as she explained that her uncle groped her cousin in front of other relatives, but nobody did anything.

Soon she told me about the nights when her uncle snuck into her bed and raped her.

She cried as she told me her family didn’t love her and wouldn’t protect her. We were the first to hear about what had happened to her in El Salvador. She couldn’t even tell her family.

About five weeks ago and with the help of a Spanish-speaking “monitor,” I was the Spanish-English interpreter for her three-hour affirmative asylum interview. I was so proud of her for telling her story, even through sobs. It was incredibly brave.

The waiting after the interview is the most difficult for everyone, I think, especially for the family. I get frequent phone calls from asylum applicants, wondering if I’ve heard anything. They are all afraid they will be forced to go back and face their nightmares once again.

The question people ask me most often is whether my job is emotionally draining. The answer is yes, sometimes, obviously.

“I knew immigration law was complicated,” says Emily, shown here in her South Florida JFON office. “I just didn’t realize how much.” 

The answer is also that, while it is hard to hear and interpret and repeat and write down and reread the horrifying acts of violence and persecution that my young clients have faced, it was much worse for them to have to live those real experiences.

I owe it to them to be at least as brave as they have been by fleeing and sharing their stories so they can stay safe.

As I look back on my time as a Global Mission Fellow Missionary serving with South Florida Justice For Our Neighbors (JFON), my heart is full. This experience has been incredibly rewarding, and I will miss my clients greatly as I head to law school in the fall.

Last week I opened up a letter: “Recommended Approval” it said, in bold, at the top.

“She’ll get to be a doctor,” I thought. The sense of relief washed over me when I called the child’s mother. Contingent upon an identity and background check, etc., the United States has decided to protect her from the persecution she faced as a young girl in El Salvador.

I allowed myself a chance to feel the joy of that moment.

Then I was back to work, with 12 more asylum applications to finish before I leave in July.

_____________________________________

* Emily Kvalheim and Caitlin Kastner, both Global Mission Fellows of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries have spent the last two years working for South Florida JFON. They have both been an invaluable asset to that mission, but now their time is at an end.  We wish them all the best in their future endeavors, knowing they will always leave their little piece of the world better than when they found it. Godspeed!

We wrote about Emily and Caitlin when they first started their work for South Florida JFON. Please read it here. 

 

For the Love of my Five Daughters

JFON New York reunites sisters after a 22-year separation

He was a hard-working man in a country where hard work is not always rewarded. He was a devout man among the Christian minority in Hyderabad, India; a lay minister in the Methodist Church, who loved to preach and loved to sing. He was a man who always wanted to do the right thing.

But ask anyone who knew this man to identify the defining purpose of his life and the answer would always be the same: love for his daughters. He had five of them; they were the joy of his life, but also his worry. How would he adequately provide for them? What kind of future would they have? Where was the opportunity for them?

So when Mark had a chance to immigrate to the United States, and to bring his family with him, he took it. This had been his dream for a very long time. He was determined that his daughters would start new and better lives in America.

All except one. Tiara, the eldest, was 21 years of age and recently married. No longer a dependent, she was not allowed to accompany her father. She and her husband would need to stay in India until Mark could find a way to bring them over.

It was a heart-wrenching decision. They were a close and loving family. They knew it would take more than a decade to bring Tiara to them. The sisters had never been separated. How would they bear so many years apart?

“It was difficult to be left behind,” admits Tiara quietly. “But I understood why.”

It was for the good of the family, and the family is everything.

Like these girls enjoying a holiday at the beach, Mark’s daughters were devoted sisters.

In 2001, after some years living in the United States, Mark—a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR or Green Card holder) who was on his way to citizenship—petitioned the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to bring Tiara and her husband over to join the family. He assumed he was doing the right thing, that as a Green Card holder he had a right to petition for Tiara.

He was wrong.

“My father didn’t do his homework,” admits Josephine, the second eldest daughter. “He should have asked somebody, but he didn’t have anyone to advise him. He didn’t know you weren’t supposed to do that.”

USCIS never informed Mark of his mistake. He became a citizen in 2002, still waiting to hear when his eldest daughter would be joining them. In 2006, they were finally informed that Mark’s original petition as an LPR was invalid. Now they would have to start all over again.

For a U.S. citizen parent to bring over a married child from India the waiting time is 12 years. If Mark had waited and submitted the petition when he became a U.S. citizen, the family would have been together by 2014. Now the earliest they would see her would be 2018.

By his mistake, Mark had cost his daughter Tiara and their entire family four years. Four years when they could have been together.

“He carried this guilt until his deathbed,” remembers Josephine. “For 22 years, he lived with regret for leaving her behind. He wasn’t able to give her the advantages the rest of his daughters had. And then, to know we had lost all those precious years…” She shakes her head. “It was a terrible blow.”

Their father died in 2015. It was a shock to everyone. He had been ill, yes, but it hadn’t seemed that serious. Always protecting the ones he loved, Mark had hid his illness well from his daughters.

“The last time I saw him,” recalls Josephine, her voice quavering, “he made me promise: ‘If anything happens to me,’ he told me, ‘you have to continue. You have to bring your sister here.’”

“I honestly feel like I reassured him,” she adds. “He trusted me. He had faith that I would get this job done. I was not going to fail him.”

Although Josephine willingly shouldered this burden from her beloved father, the obstacles preventing her from carrying out his last wishes remained immense. A family petition dies with the petitioner. Josephine would have to submit her own petition and as she was only a sibling, the wait would be another 14 years. The year would be 2029. The sisters would be middle-aged women, their own children grown, before they would be finally reunited.

Citizens of India whose U.S. citizen siblings filed family-sponsored petitions on or before Sept 15, 2003, are finally eligible for an immigrant visa in June 2017.

Josephine was at a loss as to where to turn and what to do. A friend from church told her about JFON New York and site attorney TJ Mills.

TJ advised Josephine to apply for a humanitarian exemption, so that Tiara, her husband and child, would be moved to the front of the line. “It was going to be difficult,” TJ acknowledges. “Tiara’s life was not in any danger and she was not suffering undue hardship—unless we could convince the USCIS that a family’s separation of 22 years is an undue hardship.”

“What we had on our side,” TJ adds, “is that family unity is fundamental to U.S.  immigration policy.” He began gathering affidavits; a local congressman became involved; and TJ carefully laid out the case for a timely family reunification.

They won, and Tiara, her husband, and child will shortly be moving to the United States.

“Honestly, I feel like USCIS probably felt remorse,” says Josephine. “My guess is that they felt somewhat responsible for the delay. If they had only informed us of my father’s mistake…” She stops, her voice quavering again with unshed tears. “And perhaps,” she finishes quietly, “they also recognized that we all had been apart long enough.”

It was a miracle late in coming, but it was still a miracle. “I give the glory to God,” Josephine says gratefully, “but also to TJ.”

Josephine and her sisters are busily making preparations for the day when they are finally reunited. There will be a joyous celebration, of course, with many thankful prayers. “And then,” says Josephine, “we will all go to visit our father’s grave and spend some time with him.”

Together the five daughters will remember the father who loved them and wanted to give them the world. A father who nurtured trees under whose shade he will never sit and who planted seeds for a garden he will never see bloom.

“He is,” says Tiara simply, “still in the midst of us.”

 

JFON West Michigan alone in leading “Know Your Rights” Programs at Detention Center

Necesito a alquien: I need someone

By Katrina Pradelski, Esq., JFON West Michigan Staff Attorney

I walk in, take a deep breath, and say, “me llamo Katrina, y trabajo para la Justicia para Nuestros Vecinos como abogada. No trabajo para el gobierno. Necesito a alguien para traducir.”

I’ve just introduced myself, assured them I don’t work for the government, and stated I need someone to translate.

Twice a month, this is what Tuesdays look like for me as I present Know Your Rights programs for the detained immigrants in the Calhoun County Correctional Facility in Battle Creek, Michigan.

A father of three faces deportation and separation from his children. Photo courtesy of UM News Service.

The immigrants here are in various stages of the deportation process, and many are not from Michigan; they were brought in on buses from the border, and have no idea that they’re only three hours away from Canada.

The presentations I offer consist of information on how to navigate the court system, what their rights are in the court process, and what remedies they may be eligible for. The information I provide helps guide them in the right direction, without taking the immigrant on for full representation.

Currently, JFON West Michigan is the only agency that does these presentations at Battle Creek. Without us, the only sources of information detained immigrants have are the government, a small law library (all in English, mind you), other inmates, or, if they are lucky, family on the outside who can hire an attorney.

They need someone on their side. Someone to explain this biased system and our laws, just like I need someone to explain their language for me. They need someone to commiserate with them about being treated like criminals, even though they only wanted safety and fled for their lives. Someone to tell them how long they can be detained after they are ordered to be deported. Someone to assure them that being here doesn’t make them a bad person, a bad spouse, or a bad parent.

Right now, that someone is JFON.

Knowledge is Power

JFON attorneys lead expanded “Know Your Rights” workshops

Photo courtesy of Ava Benach.

You kiss your daughter goodbye and send her off to school. You wish her luck on her spelling test, and tell her you can’t wait to hear all about it later that evening.

But you won’t see her later. She’ll come home to an empty house and not know where you are.

Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) knocked on your door just as you were leaving for work. They searched your house and now you are being detained.

What do you do now? What happens to your daughter?

 Do you know your rights?

At Know Your Rights workshops, immigrants—whatever their immigration status—can learn their rights as residents in this country, prepare for the possibility of a raid, and create a safety plan for their family.

These informational sessions are not a new thing, but the sense of urgency and the number of communities clamoring for them feels different from previous years. Hateful campaign rhetoric, multiple executive orders, subsequent cases filed to combat them, and the inundation of fake news on social media have all contributed to create an atmosphere of confusion, worry, and fear.

JFON attorneys across the country have responded to this heightened demand by leading more workshops, not only in their home churches, but in other houses of worship, schools, libraries and community centers.

This card was designed to be presented to the ICE agent, while the at-risk immigrant stays silent. Determined silence reduces the chance of altercations, blunders, and attempts at intimidation. Source: Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

If knowledge is power, it is also a weapon, and it is the best defense our immigrant communities have against the Trump administration’s new enforcement priorities. Some of these new priorities give sweeping power to local officials, many of whom do not have a full understanding of immigration law. Armed with knowledge, our communities can make informed choices regarding their interactions with ICE agents and local police officers and can best protect their rights at home, in their car, on the street or in their workplace.

Know Your Rights workshops can help, says TJ Mills, NJFON consulting attorney and site attorney for New York Justice for Our Neighbors, “assuage the concerns about the Trump administration’s executive order to deport undocumented immigrants without regard to number of years they have lived in the country or whether they have criminal records.”

Some undocumented immigrants may feel safe from the threat of deportation because they are misinformed or unaware of new and aggressive immigration enforcement policies. Source: Immigrant Defense Project.

Being prepared for the worst-case scenario

“Safety planning” has become an integral part of all the Know Your Rights workshops led by JFON attorneys, who help immigrants in danger of deportation and separation from their family compile the documents they will need if they are suddenly detained by ICE. These documents need to be kept in a secure place, one known to other trusted friends or family members. They include:

  • Caregiver’s Authorization Affidavit—so the person taking care of your child has authority to make school-related and medical decisions.
  • Special Power of Attorney—for the person who will be making long-term decisions for your child’s well-being.
  • Limited Power of Attorney—for the person who will be handling your financial assets.

Planning for the possibility of being forced to leave your family—even just thinking about it—takes courage. It’s confusing and scary, and it’s a task best not attempted alone.  JFON attorneys can walk their at-risk immigrant clients through the planning process, explaining every step along the way, and providing them some ease and assurance that, even if the worst happens, they and their family will be better equipped to deal with it.

“They are very grateful for our help,“ says Dominique Poirier, NJFON consulting attorney and legal director for Just Neighbors, our JFON site in Northern Virginia. “From what I’ve seen, people leave the workshops actually feeling encouraged and hopeful.”

“We have never been more proud,” adds Melissa Bowe, program and advocacy manager for NJFON, “to serve our immigrant family members, neighbors and larger community in teaching about our constitutional protections and other best practices under American immigration law.”

JFON on the Border:
Imperial Valley JFON celebrates Grand Opening and First Clinic

The Border is just different…

It was meant to be a desert. Modern irrigation, however, turned the valley into the second-largest agricultural area in California. An aerial view shows a vast expanse of light and dark green checkerboards; 80 percent of our nation’s salad greens come from these fields.  Take a closer look, however, and see the weather-beaten faces of men and women, their bodies bent and stooped as they move through the neat furrows. These are our immigrant neighbors who make all that lettuce possible.

Workers harvest winter lettuce in Imperial Valley. Photo courtesy of the Huffington Post.

Much of the work in this valley is agricultural and, therefore, seasonal. Unemployment hovers at 20 percent, among the highest in the nation.

Most of the inhabitants—80 percent—are Hispanic, some living here for generations, even before it was part of the United States.

The town of El Centro—the home of First United Methodist Church and Imperial Valley JFON—is the county seat.

To the west and north are mountains, blocking the valley off from the major cities of Southern California. To the east are the extraordinary Algodones sand dunes, where parts of The Return of the Jedi and The Scorpion King were filmed. To the south, of course, is Mexico.

Once you cross the border into the United States, you will likely see U.S. Border Patrol agents again. There are checkpoints at every road north, east, and west of El Centro. For U.S. citizens and lawful residents, these frequent checkpoints are a hassle and inconvenience. For the undocumented, they are a danger zone that limits freedom and opportunity.

“Your whole world is contained,” explains Kelly Smith, site attorney for the new Imperial Valley JFON.  “You can get a job in El Centro or Yuma, and that’s it. Every road out of here has a checkpoint.

“There’s just no way to get out of this valley.”

Nobody should have to go through the system alone…

Non-locals express surprise to learn that most of the detainees at the Imperial Valley Detention Facility do not come from Mexico; they are just as likely to originate from Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean. Some are asylum seekers, fleeing violence or destruction. Some are victims of sex-trafficking or other crimes. Many are already in removal proceedings, waiting out the long days until they are deported back to their home countries.  Few have access to an attorney. Without an attorney to guide and advocate for them, even fewer will be allowed to stay in the United States.

 Imperial Valley Detention Center houses a minimum of 640 men and women, whose average length of stay is 124 days. Photo credit: Desert Sun.

“There are very few lawyers available to begin with,” Kelly says, “but for those with little money, there just aren’t any options.”

The largest and most well-known charitable organization in the area—Catholic Charities—doesn’t do detention work. But for Kelly and Imperial Valley JFON, it’s a natural fit.

“We’ve already made inroads at the facility,” says Pastor Ron Griffen of First UMC El Centro. “We met with the warden and took the tour.”

“It’s where I practiced originally,” adds Kelly. “And I think that’s where there is the biggest need.”

You are welcome here…

First UMC El Centro is a busy, active church, whose members strive to make a significant difference in the lives of people around them. “Your better life awaits,” is the promise you find on their website. ”You don’t have to watch others change humanity; you were born to do this, too.

At the church’s Olive Street Center, there are support groups for parents of autistic children, LGBTQ individuals and their families, and those grieving a loss of a loved one. There are also classes in music, ESL, and citizenship. And now there is a JFON clinic!

On Kelly’s first visit, she admits, she was “church shopping,” searching for a comfortable place to worship with her husband and young daughter.

Kelly did not grow up in the United Methodist Church. She was   immediately struck by the open and inclusive message coming from both Pastor Ron and the congregation, and the warm welcome she and her family received.

“I knew we had found our church home,” she says simply.

That was in 2014, at the height of the unaccompanied migrant children (UAC) surge, when El Centro was processing 130 kids per day, before sending them on to housing. There were no problems in El Centro; in fact, most of the town appeared sympathetic to the children’s plight. It was, however, a different story in other California towns, where residents protested, blocked buses, and shouted vitriolic remarks.

“What in the world were these people thinking,” Pastor Ron asks, shaking his head at the memory. “These were just kids.”

Pastor Ron organized a forum on the issue at a local community college. He announced the forum from the pulpit on the day that Kelly was visiting. Intrigued, Kelly let Pastor Ron know that she was an immigration attorney who wanted to help.

So here was Pastor Ron, with a congregation that wanted to make a significant difference in the lives of immigrants. And here was Kelly Smith, who was just the person to help them do it.

A better life awaits.

You have a place to go where you will be safe…

Kelly was volunteering her services, part time, for the church’s occasional immigration legal clinics when she first heard about National Justice for Our Neighbors, a ministry of the United Methodist Church. It was almost a moment of divine revelation: NJFON provides resources, expertise, and guidance to JFON sites across the country, exactly what Kelly and Pastor Ron needed if they were going to expand and grow.

They began the process of joining the JFON family. The launch and first clinic were planned for the last weekend of February.

The community was abuzz with excitement and enthusiasm. Nowhere was a JFON site more desperately needed.  But many of the local immigrants, Pastor Ron worried, were also desperately afraid. He read news reports of aggressive Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) actions—including one that had targeted a UMC Mission church in Northern Virginia. Would that happen here, in California, he wondered? Would people stay away, afraid to come out of hiding?

Kelly, while conceding the existence of a tense climate of fear and uncertainty, remained cheerfully optimistic. “It’s not for nothing that my friends call me Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” she says, grinning.

El Centro Mayor Alex Cardenas with Pastor Ron Griffen and Imperial Valley JFON’s site attorney Kelly Smith at the IV JFON Grand Opening. Many elected officials, dignitaries, and community leaders also came out to show their support. Imperial Valley Press Photo credit: Julio Morales.

Kelly’s confidence was well-founded. The launch of the newest JFON site—and the only one in close proximity to the Mexican border—was, by any definition, a great success.

Most exciting, for Kelly, is the number of people who want to help. Their first volunteer training attracted 12 people and more are signing up to attend the next training.

Best yet, Kelly reports that three local attorneys have also volunteered their legal services.

The story made the front page of the local paper and was also featured by the local Spanish television station. Kelly noticed the difference immediately.

“Today I am a bit overwhelmed,” she admits. “The church is being inundated with calls. But it shows you how much we are needed.”

There are three other UMC churches in the area that are interested in holding immigration legal clinics. Part of Imperial Valley JFON’s eventual goal, says Pastor Ron, is to have clinics all over the region, going everywhere and anywhere people need immigration legal services.

“We want people to know that we really are here, we really are legitimate, and we really can help,” explains Pastor Ron.

“We want them to know that now they have a chance.”

Tarek’s Story

This is where I belong

Roughly a week after the new administration announced its travel ban, indefinitely prohibiting any Syrian refugee from entering the U.S., Amnesty International released a report detailing the execution—by hanging—of 13,000 Syrian civilians at Saydnaya prison, some 40 kilometers north of Damascus.

The number of dead is so staggering, the cruelty so monstrous, that we shake our head, unable—unwilling—to comprehend such evil acts.

“It is shocking, but it’s not surprising,” says Tarek, a JFON client and Syrian asylum seeker living in Chicago. “The Assad government proved to me a long time ago that there is nothing they won’t do to stay in power.  The people executed at this prison were just ordinary people. Yes, they opposed the regime, but they didn’t do anything about it. They were just normal citizens.”

Tens of thousands of ordinary Syrians have disappeared over the last four years. They are taken from their homes, schools, offices, and markets. There is always some place where they were last seen. But they are never seen again.

Tarek almost became one of the legion of disappeared himself.

Smart, studious, and serious-minded, he was an engineering student in Damascus before the war started. As a university student, Tarek had attended a few peaceful protests. He had also—using a fake name—complained about the regime on Facebook.

Such a silly, simple thing, and yet it could have cost him his life.

Tarek got out of Syria three and a half years ago. With the help of Northern Illinois JFON’s supervising attorney Jenny Ansay, he applied for asylum.  He completed his studies in Illinois and now has a good job, a girlfriend, and friends. He has not, however, been able to visit the parents and sisters he left behind.

Tarek worries that his asylum claim will be rejected. He worries he won’t be able to stay in his new country. He would like to be able to meet his family in a neighboring country—Turkey, perhaps, as going back to Syria is out of the question—but he doesn’t see how that is possible. The administration’s travel ban has thrown a menacing shadow over so many lives.

Yet the events of the past week have also led to something surprising—an unintended outcome that President Trump and his supporters simply did not foresee.

Belonging. 

“When the ban was first announced, I didn’t really imagine that a lot of Americans would care about people from those seven countries,” Tarek explains. “But then I saw the number of people coming out to protest. It really surprised me until I realized that what Trump did was truly against American values. The people protesting were telling the world that this action is un-American.”

Tarek—only 25 years old—has seen a lot of despair and misery in his short life. But it hasn’t changed who he is. A travel ban—even a Muslim exclusion ban—isn’t going to change him, either.

“Right now, I feel very lucky,” he says, smiling.  “I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of Chicago.”

To learn more about Northern Illinois JFON’s Syrian clients, please read Jenny Ansay’s Do y’all even know any Syrians?

Damascus protest photo courtesy of Al Jazeera. 

The America we love

The America we must defend 

“This is a normal work day for you, yes?” Zamir asked, looking around the chaotic waiting area at Washington Dulles airport, where hundreds of protesters were gathered with signs, and lawyers sat on the floor with cellphones and laptops at the ready.

Zamir is a U.S. lawful permanent resident (LPR or Green Card holder). Having served our government abroad for years in a dangerous and vital capacity, he now calls Maryland home.

“All these lawyers…they are being paid?”

“No, we’re all volunteers,” replied Angela Edman, site attorney for DC-MD JFON. Having extensive experience serving refugees and asylum seekers, Angela had driven to Dulles early on Sunday morning to assist in any way she could. And there she had met Zamir, her newest client.

“We’re here to help you.”

Zamir was silent, but his face mirrored puzzlement and disbelief.

“But, why?”

“Because I believe the president’s orders are wrong,” Angela told him. “This is not the America I love. And we want to show you that you are welcome here.”

The scene at Washington Dulles Airport when travelers being detained were finally released.

Just then, as if on cue, the waiting room erupted in cheers as a group of travelers straggled through the doors. There were balloons, flowers, American flags and robust cries of “welcome home!”

It had been a terrible day for Zamir. His wife, also an LPR, and his baby daughter, a U.S. citizen, were in their home country, visiting a gravely ill family member. Now they were stuck there and could not get back to Maryland.

Zamir was sick with worry, but a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.

“Wow,” he muttered, shaking his head in wonder and gratitude. “People actually do want us here.”

Standing in Solidarity with Refugees at DFW Airport

Thousands of Americans streamed into our nation’s airports this past weekend to both protest President Trump’s mean-spirited and ill-conceived exclusion ban and to support our Muslim immigrants, refugees, and neighbors.

 Heidi Ortiz, a volunteer from Justice for Our Neighbors Dallas-Fort Worth was there. This is her story:

On Sunday morning, January 29th, we received the message via Facebook. People with valid visas and permanent residency cards (green cards) were being detained at DFW airport.  We decided instead of attending service at our local United Methodist Church, we should immediately go to the airport to show our support. Rumors were circulating that officials were pressuring the detained to waive their rights and get on an 11 AM flight out of the country. We loaded the kids into the car, said a prayer, and were on our way.

At the airport, there were people of all different types, and many families with kids. The airport police were visible and courteous.  As long as protesters did not get in the way of passengers or airport workers, we were able to chant and hold signs.  One of the chants that caught my attention was “free my Grandma”.  Later I learned via the Dallas Morning News that a number of the detained were elderly with health issues.

Someone had brought supplies to make posters.  For myself, I made a sign that says “Jesus stands with Refugees”.  In addition to being theologically sound (indeed, Christ loves all people), I wanted our Muslim brothers and sisters to know that as a Christian, I was standing with them.  Jesus himself was a refugee, fleeing to Egypt after an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream.

For my two-year-old daughter I wrote “Toddlers Stand with Refugees”. She has a friend her age whose parents are from Yemen.  While their exact status may not be refugees, the mother told me they cannot go back because of the dire situation in that country.  Toddlers don’t care much about borders—they just love people!

No one wants terrorists in this country. Unfortunately, so many people are unaware of the different types of immigration to the U.S.   Refugees are fleeing war.  Lawful permanent residents have already made their home in the U.S.  In both cases, those detained are our neighbors AND they had legal permission to enter our country.  This sudden action did not stop terrorists.  It was wrong and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to oppose it personally.  Before we left the airport, we stopped to pray as a family.

My prayer for you is the same as the one at the airport — that God will open our hearts to be more like Him and that He would show us how to love our neighbors as ourselves in these trying times.

What can I do?
Rising Together to Defeat the Ban

“I am glad I was able to go and help by providing legal information and explanations of the constantly changing situation. But more so, I am glad I was able to provide comfort to immigrants who were confused and scared about what would happen to their family members abroad who have green cards or U.S. visas and may not be able to return.

The sheer number of people who showed up this weekend–not just the lawyers, but the huge group of regular citizens who wanted to support and welcome these people–they all helped restore some of my faith in humanity.”

 -Angela Edman, site attorney for DC-MD JFON, at Washington Dulles International Airport.

National Justice for Our Neighbors is thankful to immigration attorneys—heroes and heroines like Angela–who are on the front lines zealously defending immigrants and refugees under attack by President Trump’s latest Executive Order. 

Volunteer New York JFON Attorney and American Friends’ Service Committee’s Supervising Attorney Alexandra Goncalves-Pena gathers with other immigration attorneys at Newark International Airport. Photo Courtesy of Buzzfeed

The third and most recent immigration-focused Executive Order by President Trump, signed Friday, January 27th, targets refugees as well as those traveling from seven predominantly Muslim countries.  National Justice for Our Neighbors is strongly opposed to this action because it shuts the door on the world’s most vulnerable people.

This order includes an unprecedented travel ban in that it excludes entry into our country based on where someone was born.  The order applies to Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Libya, Sudan, and Yemen.  The ban splits families apart, prevents many students in America from continuing their education, and threatens the jobs of people who need to travel for work.  In 2016, the JFON network served 175 refugees and asylees from the seven banned countries.  Notably, while the ban purports to protect Americans, the total number of Americans killed on U.S. soil by citizens of those countries since 1975 is zero.

The Executive Order suspends America’s refugee program for 120 days, which will effectively grind refugee resettlement here to a halt.  This is because many of the requirements of refugees, such as security screenings and medical exams, are time-limited and will expire by the time the ban is lifted.   The order reduces the number of refugees we will accept from 110,000 to 50,000 and bans all refugees from Syria, reneging on our nation’s pledge to the world to provide refuge to these most imperiled people.

Another troubling element of the Executive Order is the provision which allows states to have a more active role in banning the acceptance of refugees.  We have seen many governors over the past year seek to shut the door on refugees, and this order grants them more authority to do just that.

The administration action’s force our immigrant neighbors further into the shadows and cruelly endanger the lives of those fleeing violence. These actions also threaten our identity and legacy as a country. It is more important now than ever to educate ourselves and our communities, and take action in any way we can. Here’s how you can help.

  • Learn More and Share Information about the Latest Executive Order

Advocates from Refugee Council USA have put together the FAQ Tool attached below on what is currently known about the latest Executive Order. Please note the disclaimer at the top of the document that it “is not legal advice but instead provides the best answers that we can provide at this time. It is subject to change as additional guidance is released from the U.S. Government.”

Refugee Center Online (RCO) has prepared webpages in English, Amharic, Arabic, Chinese, French, Karen, Kurdish, Nepali, Russian, Spanish, Turkish and Vietnamese to help explain to refugees how the Executive Order will affect them. Please distribute widely!

  • Call Elected Officials

Elected officials must understand the broad support for welcoming refugees and other newcomers. Please call your local, state, and national leaders — tell them where you’re from, why you care about refugees, and urge them to support the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Click here for more information including a sample call script from our friends at Refugee Council USA.

  • Collect Stories

We are all hearing stories of people around the country and around the world who are directly affected by the Executive Order. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society developed this form to collect and share these stories to illustrate the widespread devastation of Trumps’ policy. These stories can include:

  • People detained at ports of entry
  • Refugees who were expecting to come to the U.S. (in the “pipeline”)
  • U.S. residents who were expecting their family members to join them in the U.S.
  • Communities and congregations who were expecting to welcome refugees (i.e. furnishing apartments, collecting donations, etc.)

By filling out the form, you are granting permission for these stories to be told publicly.  No identifying information will be used. Photos are encouraged. Please contact liza.lieberman@hias.org with any questions.

  • Host a Vigil or Press Event

We urge you to check out Church World Service’s resources regarding hosting VIGILS & PRESS EVENTS opposing this announcement and the immigration announcements that happened on Friday. Let us know if you decide to host an event and please send us photos!

  • Sign A Petition

Sign THIS PETITION from Moveon.org that opposes the latest Executive Order and already has more than 37,000 signatures within 24 hours.

Thank you for all the ways you are helping us lift a message of inclusivity, compassion and justice.

  • Donate to our 20 by ’20 Campaign!

If we learned anything these past few days, it is that the law, the courts, and lawyers are crucial in this fight to protect and defend our immigrant, refugee, and asylee neighbors. We know that without attorneys, our most vulnerable and marginalized neighbors don’t stand a chance. In response, NJFON is introducing our…

20 by ’20 Campaign!

We currently have 15 JFON sites across the country.

Our goal is to increase that number to 20 sites by 2020.

Please consider donating $20.20 TODAY!