NYC stands with the refugees

September 16, 2015

Edna Bonhomme reports from New York City on a rally to demand that the U.S. government do more for those fleeing the Middle East violence it helped to cause.

CLOSE TO 1,000 people gathered at Union Square in New York City on September 12 to take part in an international day of action in solidarity with Syrian refugees--and to demand that the United States dramatically increase the pitifully small numbers it has so far allowed into the country.

The protest was called by members of the Middle East and North African (MENA) Solidarity Network, Syrian activists and students in New York City, who came together around two major demands:

1) In solidarity with refugees trying to reach Europe, we call upon the European Union member states to open their borders unconditionally for asylum seekers, to allow free movement for refugees within the European Union to reach the country of their choice, and to halt the building of borders and fences that are being constructed for the sole purpose of keeping refugees out.

2) We call upon the United States to take steps towards the alleviation of the refugee crisis. The International Rescue Committee has called upon the U.S. to accept at least 65,000 refugees by 2016. We call upon the Obama administration to pledge to accept at least 65,000 refugees from Syria for resettlement in the United States by 2016.

The New York City rally in solidarity with Syrian refugees was part of an international day of action
The New York City rally in solidarity with Syrian refugees was part of an international day of action (Edna Bonhomme | SW)

Over the past several weeks, the international community has witnessed harrowing images of Syrians fleeing from the violence of the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The image of the corpse of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed ashore from the Mediterranean Sea sparked a movement among ordinary people to provide more homes for Syrian refugees in Europe and the U.S.

Although the migration of Syrians escaping the Assad regime is not entirely recent, the images have brought out the worst and best of humanity. Since 2011, an estimated 4 million Syrian refugees have resided in camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. As of September 2015, European countries such as Germany have agreed to take up to 100,000 refugees, whereas the United States has only received 1,500.

SEASONED AND new activists came together in New York City to express their grievances about the Syrian crisis and to ask that Europe and the U.S. be more proactive in helping migrants and refugees.

The demonstration was in conjunction with a petition has insists the United States accept more Syrian refugees. While the White House has agreed to take 10,000 Syrians over the next year, this falls short of the recommendation by the International Rescue Committee for the U.S. to provide asylum to 100,000 Syrian refugees.

The rally was attended by a multiracial crowd of young and old, who were passionate about providing aid, housing and resources to Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees seeking a home. Protesters held signs reading, "EU, USA. Let them all in," "No one is Illegal," "Refugees in. Racists Out" and "Freedom to Move. Freedom to Return. Freedom to Stay."

"I want a president who is antiwar and stands for immigrant rights," exclaimed Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, generating a passionate response from the crowd. "These streets are our streets, and we say welcome refugees!"

The theme of solidarity was central to the demonstration. Not only were Middle East and North African solidarity activists present, immigration rights and Black Lives Matter organizers declared their support for having more Syrian refugees come to the U.S.

One popular chant from Saturday was, "From Syria to Mexico, border walls have got to go!" As Shafeka, a graduate student and member of the Students for Justice in Palestine, said, "There are connections between what is happening with Palestinians and Syrian refugees. We are fighting for their rights here and abroad."

On the border question, various speakers and people in the audience challenged the divisions within the Middle East and elsewhere. "We should not live in a world with borders," said a 59-year-old man named Anousheh. "The borders in the Middle East were created around 1900, and they are artificial."

Various speakers went beyond the demand for the U.S. to receive more refugees to discuss the political roots of the crises in Syria and the rest of the Middle East--in particular the role played by the U.S. and European countries in supporting authoritarian regimes. Several people in the crowd spoke about how U.S. and European imperialism played a role in creating and strengthening both Bashar al-Assad and ISIS.

It is essential for the U.S. to have a more active stance in alleviating the Syrian refugee crisis in order to save more people from risking their lives on leaky boats in the Mediterranean Sea. Given its vast number of vacant homes, the U.S. easily has the capacity to take in Syrian refugees.

Resettlement is not merely about accepting more refugees but ensuring that they are not treated with xenophobia and racism towards the newly arrived immigrants--as has often tragically been the case in Germany. It is imperative that host countries provide education, housing, jobs, and other means to help refugees overcome the many obstacles they face trying to resettle.

For those who came out to the demonstration. the point was both to honor those who have lost their lives trying to find a better life--and to fight so that others won't have to face such desperate choices.

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