By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
This time, they said, it was personal.
An estimated 500 people gathered in Missoula on Sunday afternoon, joining marches across the country to protest President Donald Trump’s executive order suspending refugee admission into the U.S.
Trump’s order also barred Syrian refugees entirely and blocked citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S. for 90 days. With the stroke of a pen, the president’s action dealt a blow to those with a more inclusive vision for America.
“I don’t know how (Trump) can argue this is not an anti-Muslim thing when all the people affected are Muslims,” said Jameel Chaudhry, an immigrant from East Africa who has spent the past 21 years in Missoula. “This is Day 10 of the rebellion.”
While Sunday’s rally wasn’t intended to be overtly political, several took aim at Trump and members of Congress, including Montana Sen. Steve Daines, who cosponsored the Syrian Refugee Verification and Safety Act banning Syrian refugees from entering the U.S.
“We are at war with Islamic extremists and anything less than 100 percent verification of these refugees’ backgrounds puts our national security at risk,” Daines, R-Montana, said in a statement Sunday. “We need to take the time to examine our existing programs to ensure terrorists aren’t entering our country. The safety of U.S. citizens must be our number one priority.”
Molly Carr Short, the outgoing executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Missoula, has worked through such issues during the 15 years she has been in the field of resettlement.
Since the IRC established its office in Missoula, roughly 46 refugees have arrived here, including those from Africa and Iraq.
“After the ban came out, everyone felt a need to say, ‘No, this is America, and we have a tradition of upholding rights, protecting the innocent, taking in those who need protection and allowing them to become part of our greater culture and our greater community,’ ” said Carr.
Despite Trump’s order banning refugees, Carr believes the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program will remain strong. The program was founded in the 1980 Refugee Act and has withstood challenges in the past.
Even as the crowd gathered Sunday, a White House official suggested that Trump had reversed a portion of his order. Still, Carr said, the impact of Trump’s stance will be felt by the refugees already in the system, including those destined for Missoula.
“Up to 60,000 individuals could be impacted by this four-month ban,” said Carr. “I think the program will continue and will become stronger as we all advocate for the rights of refugees. But it will have impacts on the lives of individuals.”
Sunday’s gathering follows nearly a year after an estimated 900 people gathered in the same downtown park to stand against the swell of bigotry and hate associated with Trump’s ascent to power.
This time, however, speakers didn’t mince words, and they urged those in attendance to contact the state’s congressional delegation, as well as their legislators, to push back against intolerance and religious persecution.
“We can no longer just talk about diversity, understanding, peace and love,” said Betsy Mulligan-Dague, executive director of the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center in Missoula. “It’s time for our walk to reflect our talk. It’s time for us to follow through and be the change.”
Flags from several Middle Eastern nations waved in the crowd as Mulligan-Dague suggested some state and national leaders were afraid of religious and cultural equality. On Twitter on Sunday, Trump deplored the killing of Christians in the Middle East, but made no mention of the killing of Muslims.
Protesters also noted a bill introduced in the Montana Legislature that takes aim at “foreign law” – a measure opponents argue is targeted toward Muslims and other minority religions in the state. Last year, as many as 55 Republican legislators also urged Gov. Steve Bullock to block all Syrian refugees from entering Montana.
“We’re upset about the arbitrary divisions being made between this country and others, between one religion and another, between one culture and another,” said Mulligan-Dague. “There’s a mistaken idea out there that walls will protect us and make us safe. Real people suffer the consequences of those mistaken ideas.”
Sunday’s speakers also included Amer Alsaiari, a student at Sentinel High School, and Eamon Ormseth, coordinator of SALAM, or Standing Alongside America’s Muslims in Missoula.
Ormseth and Ilana McCloud co-organized Sunday’s event.
“This can’t go on,” said McCloud. “This can’t happen – not in our country, the land of immigrants. This is not OK. I feel this is important – that we’re standing for our Muslim brothers and sisters.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org