Baltimore-area advocates for refugees condemn Trump policy

More than 50 volunteers, led by a Columbia church, were looking forward to the arrival of the Afghan refugee family of six. They spent months finding, renting and furnishing a home. They stocked the pantry with rice, hung coats in the closets, filled drawers with socks and underwear, and placed stuffed animals on the children's beds.

But with President Donald J. Trump's executive order to halt the arrival of refugees to the United States, anticipation at Kittamaqundi Community Church has given way to disappointment.

The protestant church had worked with Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area and five Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Jewish and Muslim congregations to welcome the family — a couple with daughters aged 11 and 6 and sons aged 9 and 14 months.

Organizers were putting final touches on the house last week when word surfaced of the coming ban.

"People said, 'OK, we've got to pray,'" said the Rev. Heather-Kirk-Davidoff, of Kittamaqundi Community Church. "And Christians, Jews, Muslims stood and held hands and prayed."

She said volunteers are "devastated."

"When you get this close, you have a mental image. This is their house, and they know all about it. They were told they were going to have a community sponsoring them.

"Our dreams of hosting this family and their dreams of building a new life here in our country came to an end with the stroke of a pen."

Trump's order Friday suspended refugee admissions for 120 days to create a system that he said would tighten vetting for those from predominantly Muslim countries. Trump said that the goal is to screen out "radical Islamic terrorists." He said priority for admission would be given to Christians.

A day after the order took effect, advocates for immigrants in Maryland and across the nation condemned the approach. They said it punishes innocent people who are trying to escape catastrophe while failing to make the nation more secure.

"Every day, we are working with people fleeing violence in some of the countries that are specifically called out in this executive order," said Bill O'Keefe, a vice president of Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services.

"The people who we meet are fleeing the same people who we are afraid of," he said. "They are not the people we are afraid of. They're innocent families who have suffered already."

In fiscal 2016, 1,651 people were resettled in Maryland, according to Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. The Baltimore-based agency is one of nine that work with the State Department to help resettle immigrants and refugees in the United States.

Catholic Relief Services offers assistance to displaced people and disaster victims in 100 countries. O'Keefe, vice president of government relations, returned two weeks ago from visiting a refugee camp in northern Iraq.

He said he sat in a tent with a couple and their children who had arrived the previous night, led by a smuggler through a minefield to escape an area controlled by the self-declared Islamic State. The mother told him that ISIS prohibited them from farming their land, restricted their movement and posed a kidnapping threat to their oldest daughter, about to turn 16.

"I asked them what did they hope for, having fled," O'Keefe said. "And the woman said, 'I just don't want my children to be hungry.'

"These are the sorts of people who are fleeing these situations. While we know there are millions of people fleeing the Syrian conflict, and we can't take all of them ... the U.S. has a proud tradition of accepting people as refugees. I think of this woman and her children and her husband, and think they should be on the list."

Kirk-Davidoff said her church helped raise $22,000 for the Afghan family in two weeks.

She said the family's fate is uncertain and fears they might have to start the years of vetting to achieve refugee status all over again.

"We are going to have to say goodbye to this family," she said.

Opponents of the ban point to the extensive vetting already in place — which includes reviews by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies — and say the ban on people from Muslim-majority countries and the preference for Christians amounts to a religious test.

Trump also said states and municipalities should have a say in whether refugees can resettle there. His order calls for the secretary of homeland security to propose a way to make their involvement routine.

Such changes are long overdue, said Del. Pat McDonough, a Republican who represents parts of Baltimore and Harford counties.

"Considering the world we're living in today, I don't think it's asking too much, considering the Boston bombings, San Bernardino and everything in Europe that we be extra careful," he said.

He said he also supports reducing the number of refugees allowed to resettled in the United States.

The Baltimore Jewish Council said it stands with Muslims who are concerned about the ban's effect on refugees suffering violence.

"Many Jewish Americans know firsthand the difficulties their relatives endured in trying to escape political and religious persecution abroad and resettle their families to a place where they could live in safety," the council said in a statement.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said it would continue working with Catholic Charities to ensure that refugees are "humanely welcomed."

Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, who chairs the conference's ad hoc committee on religious freedom, said the archdiocese will continue to welcome refugees and immigrants and offer services to them.

"Our country has a right to secure its borders and we have to protect our own citizens, but our country has always been wonderfully generous and open in welcoming refugees and immigrants, and I really don't see this as a step in that direction," Lori said.

He called the order "a step backwards."

"From a religious liberty perspective, it's very difficult and questionable to come as close as the order does to singling out a particular religion."

Marcus Afzali said the order brought a mix of sadness and anger. The Owings Mills man said he came to the United States from England in 1987 with his father, mother and brother.

His father, a dual British and Iranian citizen who was born in Iran, was pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Maryland.

Today, his father's Iranian citizenship would have prevented him from entering the United States, he said. His grandmother, aunts and other relatives still in Iran can no longer visit.

"That's just incredibly depressing," said Afzali, a supervisor at a financial firm who served on the College Park City Council between 2009 and 2013.

Afzali took to Twitter on Saturday evening to call on Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, to stand up and oppose the ban.

"He's my governor, and it's his job to stand up for me," Afzali said. "Democrats standing up against this is one thing, but I don't think it's nearly as powerful as Republicans standing up against it."

"It's the right thing to do," he said. "I'm very proud of this country and of the American people who I think for the most part are opposing this. That is the America I know. That is the American people I know."

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings called Trump's executive order "un-American."

"This action betrays who we are as a country and makes us less safe," said the Maryland Democrat, the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Morgan State University President David Wilson sent a letter Saturday to the school's students and staff noting that the university has students who are from some of the seven countries included in Trump's proscribed list.

Wilson said Morgan values the "diverse faiths represented here on campus," but warned university members that it might be prudent to delay any international travel plans until officials gain a better understanding of Trump's order.

Already, worried church volunteers who help new immigrants settle into their homes and communities have been contacting Linda Hartke, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

"They're just heartbroken," and concerned that families they've been waiting for and collecting home furnishings and toys may never arrive.

Her agency helped settle 13,000 refugees last year, most of whom are women and children and primarily from Burma, Bhutan, Somalia, Iraq and Syria

"That means from day one, when a refugee family arrives at BWI airport, they are received by a caseworker or a church member," she said.

She said a family of eight arrived from the Democratic Republic of Congo before Christmas, and family members are learning English and starting to work.

"They're here. They're safe. They're the lucky ones," she said. "But there are so many others who won't have that opportunity."

O'Keefe, of Catholic Relief Services, said the average refugee spends 19 years in limbo before returning home or finding a permanent home in a new country.

He said he has traveled to Lebanon twice since the start of the Syrian war to meet with refugees.

At first, he said, many saw their situation as temporary.

But when he returned, he said, "they had shifted psychologically to 'I don't known if I'm ever going back, but I have no where to go so I'm stuck.'

"That state of limbo erodes the capacity of people to then rebuild their country."

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector and news services contributed to this article.

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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