Bekka Ross-Russell and Riz Kaiser-Din joined 1,500 people Sunday night to show support for newcomers to this country — and to feel that support themselves.
The crowd gathered outside Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library for a candlelight vigil supporting immigrants and refugees held outside Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library. Organized by Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), the Yale Refugee Project, Yale’s Muslim Student Association, and students at the Yale Law School, the vigil doubled as a show of support and call to action. Afterwards, a crowd filled Battell Chapel for a concert to benefit refugees and IRIS.
The vigil, one of hundreds protests across the country this weekend against President Donald Trump’s executive order banning refugees and immigrants and many foreign visitors, followed an afternoon protest at Bradley International Airport in Hartford organized by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). (Click on the above link for a short video about the Hartford protest from New Haven organizer Danny Ravizza.)
Ross-Russell attended Sunday night’s New Haven vigil with her husband and their two children. Just three months ago, she would never have imagined needing to come to such an event.
Ross-Russell’s family moved from their temporary home of Tanzania to Ross-Russell’s native U.S. in October 2016. They didn’t expect to encounter problems. Kaiser-Din is a citizen of the U.K. in good standing. Their two children, Simon and Zawadi Kaiser-Russell, were adopted from Tanzania, where Ross-Russell runs the NGO The Small Things. The four assumed they would settle comfortably in Branford and watch the first woman ever win the U.S. election.
Then Donald Trump won the presidential election. And just short of three months and one sweeping executive order banning immigrants later, they found themselves questioning their move, and thinking seriously about what it means to live in the U.S. as a family.
“It’s very scary not knowing what’s coming next,” said Ross-Russell. “We want to be able to take our kids back, to visit, but if we left, would we be able to get back into the country? We don’t know.”
“I’m feeling very scared,” added Kaiser-Din, who said he worries that people will bristle at his dark skin, stubbly beard and accent. “Anymore, it’s scary to even think about traveling to places I don’t know, where people don’t know me. Like the supermarket is fine, but what about rural areas? There’s so much fear ... and I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Ross-Russell said she has observed a surge in racist behavior towards her kids, who are black and speak with accents, after the election, including one young boy who told her son Simon that “black people are bad.”
Others in the crowd expressed similar sentiments. Leaning forward as Yale Chaplain Omer Bajwa spoke atop architect’s Maya Lin’s Women’s Table, Yale freshman Hafsa Abdi held her candle to her chest, the flame illuminating her soft brown eyes and pink headscarf.
“As soon as I read about the ban, I was in disbelief,” said Abdi, whose parents and two older sisters immigrated from Somalia to Fairfax, Virginia, almost 20 years ago. “This is the America my parents came to escape Somalia? This is supposed to be a democracy. Yet watching the news — it’s already like there’s been a wall built since the election.”
“I talk to my parents twice a day,” she continued, “Today, my mom said: All you can do is speak out, stay vigilant, and take care of yourself. And my dad told me: If anything, this should make you proud to be Muslim.”
“But,” she added, “I just want to say: ‘I’m just a Yale student from Virginia. I’m not a terrorist.”
Muslim Student Association (MSA) President Abrat Omeish, a senior studying political science whose family is Libyan-American and Muslim, echoed Abdi’s sentiment. He spoke of a recent visit from her grandfather—still a resident of Libya—that may have be his last to the United States.
“People needed to wake up for a long time,” he said. “Now they’ve woken up, and we’re going to keep moving. That is the continued call to action.”
Across the narrow, cold stone passageway outside of Sterling, Yale cancer researchers Stellar Levy, “Emily” (who did not wish to be identified by her full name), and Anna Truini were holding their candles high to show support for students like Abdi and Omeish as well as the thousands of immigrant and refugee families now hanging in the balance at refugee camps, detained at airports, and seeking asylum and humanitarian aid. Emily, who immigrated from Botswana six years ago, said she couldn’t help but think of her own family, several members of which are still overseas.
“I want to stand in solidarity tonight, for those people who need help,” she said. “This ban—it’s hurtful, and goes very deep. It’s why we’re here.”
“I think it goes against what makes this country this country,” said Levy. “It’s all pretty scary.”
That message—the fundamental un-American-ness of the executive order and ban—rang true for Melissa Lopez and her sons Ethan and Brendan, huddling around their candles with State Sen. Ted Kennedy, Jr. and his wife, Kiki.
“I’m here to show my kids that if you believe in something, you must stand up for it,,” said Lopez, who works in Bridgeport with students from several of the ban’s targeted countries (Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Sudan, Somalia and Libya).
“We have to show people that we care about them!” added Ethan, a middle schooler in Bethany.
“We’re here!” the crowd cried. “And we’re not going away!”
Lopez and the boys stretched their candle-grasping arms, filling the space around them with light.
Every Voice Lifted
Matthew Cramer of the Institute of Sacred Music leaned closer to the microphone in front of the altar of Battell Chapel on the corner of Elm and College. It was not yet 7 p.m., and already the chapel was mostly full.
“Would you mind just squeezing in a little closer?” he said to those already seated. The crowd did, and spaces appeared in the pews. He instructed everyone who had a space next to them to raise their hands, so those still coming in from the rally could find a place to land. They did, and soon almost all the hands were down.
Battell Chapel was packed for a concert by several musical acts held as a fundraiser for IRIS at 7 p.m. They included the a capella groups The Duke’s Men of Yale, the Yale Glee Club, Redhot & Blue, Yale Schola Cantorum, Saecula Singers, Something Extra, and Living Water. Interspersed among these groups were a quartet from the Yale School of Music, guitarist Cullen Gray, soprano Ariadne Lih and pianist Jacob Reed, Second Movement, and singer-songwriter Sofia Campoamor.
The concert transformed the defiant mood of the rally into something more varied and complex. Often that meant joy. The Duke’s Men offered pop hits from Michael Jackson, Journey, and Queen. Redhot & Blue performed “Zoot Suit Riot,” “Angel Eyes,” and “Return to Me.” Something Extra gave the audience Taylor Swift.
Most playful was the quartet of Sam Bobinski (bass), Matheus Souza (violin), Ben Wallace (piano), and Doug Perry (percussion), all students at the Yale School of Music who discovered a shared love for the music in video games. That drew a chuckle from the audience. But the music they played was serious fun.
Befitting the point of the concert, the music got just plain serious, too, as in the Yale Glee Club’s rendition of “The Road Home.”
Living Water’s performance of “Blessings” touched on the need to find faith in trying times.
And Yale Schola Cantorum’s devastating performance of Ted Hearne’s “Privilege: 5. we cannot leave,” based on a South African text about an abandoned refugee, cast a pall of silence over the chapel and brought a few people to their feet at the end.
But the true star of the night was IRIS itself, which by the end of the concert estimated that it had raised $12,000 from an audience eager to help. Executive Director Chris George spoke at the beginning of the evening to thank everyone for coming.
“I was about to say these are dark days for refugee resettlement, but boy, you have raised my spirits,” he said. He spoke briefly of the U.S. tradition of welcoming immigrants from all over the world to make new lives within its borders.
“We have to protect this tradition,” George said. “Prepare for the battle ahead ... keep your spirits high ... we need all of your energy, activism, and strength.”
When he finished, the audience rose as one and applauded, with a sound that filled the chapel from front to back, roof to ceiling.
Salovey Weighs In
Meanwhile, Yale University President Peter Salovey sent the following message to students, faculty, and staff about the Trump order:
To the Yale Community,
In the hours since Provost Polak, Vice President Goff-Crews, and I wrote to you yesterday evening, we have continued to work closely here on campus, and with colleagues at other U.S. universities, in response to the executive order signed by President Trump on Friday. As you are no doubt aware, the order provides the following:
For the next ninety days it blocks entry into the United States by citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen;
For the next ninety days it appears to bar individuals with valid visas and even green card holders from those countries from re-entering the United States unless exemptions are granted;
For the next 120 days it suspends entry of all refugees to the United States; and
It bars Syrian refugees indefinitely.
We are alarmed by this executive order. Together with many others in and beyond the Yale community, we question the motivation underlying it and recognize that it departs from long-standing policies and practices in our country. All of us are worried for colleagues, friends, and family members who may be affected by these and other changes in immigration laws.
American institutions of higher learning are united in their distress on behalf of our international students and faculty, and in their reliance on our communities’ most fundamental values of accessibility and open dialogue. Our educational mission and the welfare of our community members are directly at stake. National security is of the utmost importance, but we are steadfast in asserting that this goal can be achieved while maintaining respect for core academic—and American—values. This is why Yale joins with the Association of American Universities (AAU) in urging that “the administration’s new order barring the entry or return of individuals from certain countries…should end as quickly as possible.” We support the AAU’s call for the United States to continue “to welcome the most talented individuals from all countries to study, teach, and carry out research and scholarship at our universities.”
Our Office of International Students & Scholars (OISS), in consultation with legal counsel, has recommended that Yale students and scholars from the designated countries (including dual nationals and U.S. permanent residents) suspend plans for international travel without first consulting OISS or an immigration attorney. Staff in OISS have reached out to Yale students and scholars from the seven countries affected. The office will also be hosting open meetings for the Yale community on Wednesday, February 1, and Thursday, February 2, from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. More information is on the OISS website and will continue to be updated regularly. I know that a number of the deans also have reached out to their students and faculty, and that several gatherings of support are planned for this evening. I am grateful to see the many ways that our university community is coming together in response to this assault on our values.
Our campus includes more than 5,000 international students and scholars from 118 countries; they are part of the very lifeblood of this university. I reiterate here our commitment to the safety, well-being, and vital place at Yale of these international scholars and students, the members of our Muslim community more generally, and others who may be affected by Friday’s executive order. Not only do immigrant and international students and scholars contribute to our university, they contribute tremendously to our nation. Those who choose to stay bring new ideas, skills, energy, and cultures. Those who choose to return home foster goodwill toward the United States abroad. Today, we at Yale join our voices with all those who are calling for swift reversal of these measures that undermine our university’s—and our nation’s—core values.
President and Chris Argyris Professor of Psychology