Greensboro, NC—The casseroles, pies, and trays of less traditional Thanksgiving fare—yellow rice and peas and steaming black beans—covered three tables at the back of the assembly hall at First Presbyterian Church here last Monday night for a welcoming feast held every year for immigrants and refugees.
But this year those who gathered came with an urgent message.
In spite of what North Carolina’s governor, Pat McCrory, and the city’s congressman Mark Walker have to say, many in Greensboro welcome Syrian refugees.
“We want to bring thousands of Syrian refugees to the United States and hundreds to Greensboro,” said Zane Kuseybi, an engineer who volunteered with his wife last year to help resettle a Syrian refugee family of seven.
About 50 others joined him on stage, among them a rabbi, the outgoing president of the Islamic Center, a Baptist minister, a city councilwoman, the director of the local refugee resettlement agency, and an English professor at Guilford College who has pushed her college and others to provide temporary housing for refugees.
In 2014 and this year, 56 Syrian refugees have been resettled in North Carolina, 18 in Greensboro, 24 in nearby High Point and Winston-Salem and 14 elsewhere. In addition, 550 Iraqi refugees have also settled in North Carolina.
Life hasn’t been easy for refugees here, but with help from volunteers, like the Kuseybis, they are settling in. They are eligible to work almost immediately and have found jobs in local factories and restaurants. Their children are enrolled in public school. And, until recently, they felt welcome.
Then came the terrorist attacks last month in Paris.
McCrory was among the first of more than 30 governors to call for a suspension in the resettlement of refugees from Syria and in some cases Iraq. Four days later, the House of Representatives, with Walker joining the rest of the GOP, passed a bill that effectively suspends the resettlement of 10,000 Syrian refugees. Democrats, too, joined in, with 47 voting for the measure in the House. In North Carolina, Attorney General Roy Cooper, the leading Democratic candidate for governor, also called for a pause in refugee resettlement.
None of this sat well with those gathered in the church hall.
“We’ve had a groundswell of indignation and grief and sadness and anger at the decisions our politicians are making,” said Melanie Rodenbough, a retired lawyer and the chairperson of the board of FaithAction International House, a nonprofit organization that works with immigrants and hosts the annual community Thanksgiving feast. “We feel like there’s been a contagion of fear sweeping the country that’s causing people to forget who we, as caring people of faith, to forget who we are.”
The anti-refugee rhetoric caught resettlement workers by surprise. Sarah Ivory, the regional director for US programs at Church World Service, which has an office in Greensboro, said that until the attacks in Paris, support for Syrian and Iraqi refugees seemed to be growing, especially after the photo of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian refugee lying dead on a Turkish beach, went viral. “It’s clear that this has been simmering,” she said. “We were shocked by the degree to which it has swung so far.”