Hundreds Rally in Burlington to Support Refugees | Off Message

Hundreds Rally in Burlington to Support Refugees


Marchers on Church Street - JOHN JAMES
  • John James
  • Marchers on Church Street
Several hundred people marched and rallied in downtown Burlington on Sunday afternoon in a spirited show of solidarity with refugees and immigrants.

They took to the streets two days after President Donald Trump signed an executive order that suspended the refugee resettlement program and the entry into the U.S. of citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Syria, Libya and Somalia.

The crowd assembled at the First Unitarian Universalist Society, then marched along Church Street to City Hall Park. Marchers stepped off singing "This Land is Your Land," and then chanted: "No hate! No fear! Refugees are welcome here!"

Several speakers addressed the crowd at the park, including Mayor Miro Weinberger; Susan Sussman, a caseworker from Senator Patrick Leahy's (D-Vt.) office; Jay Diaz, a staff attorney with the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union; and Community College of Vermont student Zeinab Bulle.

A protester in the park - MATTHEW ROY
  • Matthew Roy
  • A protester in the park
Sussman read a joint statement that was issued on Friday by Vermont's congressional delegation to denounce Trump's order.

The loudest cheers were reserved for Diaz, as he told the crowd about the successful injunctions that ACLU attorneys secured on behalf of refugees and permanent residents reportedly detained at major airports, including John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City and Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C. He also urged the crowd to report to the ACLU any problems that they might encounter at ports of entry.

City Councilor Joan Shannon led the crowd in chanting former president Barack Obama's famous election campaign slogan, "Fired up, ready to go!" Others urged participants to fight racism and discrimination.

Bulle, who is from the Somali Bantu community, closed the event by telling the crowd: "I am proud to be Muslim. I fight for peace, and I am not a terrorist."

There were no visible counter-protesters at the park. But two passers-by muttered, "Go home; go home," and "Who cares a fuck," to some of the marchers.

Speaking after the event, University of Vermont student Emily Foster said she's heard many stories of Somali women "being harrassed, having their hijab pulled right off on North Street." Foster, a Muslim convert who has many friends in the Somali community, added, "I think there's a lot of unannounced racism that never gets reported."

Hatem Barghathi and his wife, Salwa Elshawehdi, beamed as they watched the crowd walk back to the First Unitarian Universalist Society. Barghathi, who moved to the U.S. from Libya in 2008, said he was worried his family "would be picked up from the street and sent to a concentration camp."

His family moved to Vermont from Missouri in August 2016 after he completed his PhD. He's now in a post-doctoral program at the University of Vermont. He hasn't been back to Libya to see his family in Benghazi in almost a decade, he said, because of the political turmoil that followed the fall of former leader Muammar Qaddafi.

"We were raised under a dictatorship ... We feel better after seeing you all," said Elshawehdi to a group of women who approached the couple after the march.

The gathering took place the day after a similar rally in Rutland. That city had expected to receive up to 100 Syrian and Iraqi refugees, and the first two Syrian families just arrived. But Trump's executive order has scrapped that plan.

Carol Tashie, a member of Rutland Welcomes, a group that was set up to help Syrian refugees resettle in Rutland, told the crowd in Rutland that she had been touched by the generosity of the local community. "We cannot let darkness rule," she said. "For darkness will only make our heart ache."
Protesters entering City Hall Park in Burlington - MATTHEW ROY
  • Matthew Roy
  • Protesters entering City Hall Park in Burlington