‘Capital of the resistance’ supports its immigrants

Ahmad Alboni, Ola Mansour and their three children came to Charlottesville through the International Rescue Committee last summer. After fleeing from Syria, they lived as refugees in Jordan. Family members who were supposed to join them in America this week have been affected by President Trump’s travel ban.
Photo by Eze Amos Ahmad Alboni, Ola Mansour and their three children came to Charlottesville through the International Rescue Committee last summer. After fleeing from Syria, they lived as refugees in Jordan. Family members who were supposed to join them in America this week have been affected by President Trump’s travel ban. Photo by Eze Amos

Since 1998, the International Rescue Committee has welcomed nearly 4,000 refugees to Charlottesville from more than 32 countries. Ola Mansour is one of them.

“Charlottesville is safe,” says Mansour, who in June 2016 relocated to Charlottesville from Jordan with her husband and three children. Three years prior, they had fled to the Middle Eastern country bordering Syria from Damascus, its capital and their home. “[There is] no life in Syria because there is war,” she says. “Every day is scary. People die, children die. Everything is difficult.”

Mansour and her husband, Ahmad Alboni, were expecting Alboni’s parents to join them in Charlottesville this week, but those plans were halted with President Donald Trump’s January 27 executive order barring refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries—“Now everything is stopped and they can’t come,” Mansour says. “We are very sad.”

Though the ban was temporarily lifted February 3, at press time Mansour said she was unsure if her in-laws would be permitted to travel to America.

In Syria, Mansour was an engineer and her husband was an accountant. Now they study at Piedmont Virginia Community College and continue to work steady jobs, Mansour at UVA Medical Center. About their local support system, she says, “We love everyone in Charlottesville and they love us.”

Since the travel ban was initiated, IRC volunteer coordinator Diana Cole Connolly says she has received more than 50 volunteer applications and nearly 200 since the presidential election.

“We typically get about two dozen applications in a given month,” she says, adding that, at press time, the IRC had also raised $6,490 from 71 donors since January 27. For people who want to support the IRC and refugees in the community, she suggests calling local and state representatives to say they support the committee’s work and giving cash donations to the IRC.

“We’re going to continue accepting volunteer applications, but, realistically, it may be several months before we’re able to process them,” she says, especially if the IRC won’t be receiving any refugee families for a prolonged period.

Executive Director Harriet Kuhr says the ban is “sort of like slamming the door on refugees. This is a betrayal of who we are as a nation. America has a history of welcoming immigrants who are escaping war and crisis and need a safe place to resettle and rebuild their lives.”

Kuhr was one of many speakers, including Gold Star father Khizr Khan and Pam Northam, wife of Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, at Mayor Mike Signer’s heavily attended January 31 rally to declare Charlottesville a “capital of the resistance.” The mayor said he’d met with a dozen local refugees the previous weekend and listened to “the fear, the confusion, the anxiety” caused by Trump’s order. “They are hearing the message America doesn’t want them,” said Signer.

Several groups have stepped up in an effort to negate that feeling.

Legal Aid Justice Center, which is based in Charlottesville, led the charge against the president’s executive order on immigration that stranded many arriving into the United States. It represented two Yemeni brothers, Tareq and Ammar Aziz, who arrived at Dulles International Airport early January 28 with immigration visas, only to be handcuffed and, according to a suit, coerced into signing documents waiving their rights to permanent resident status.

The 21- and 19-year-old brothers were shipped back to Ethiopia, where their flight originated, while Legal Aid obtained a temporary restraining order barring such actions. Virginia joined the suit January 31, and the Azizes were reunited with their U.S. citizen father February 6.

Legal Aid raised more than $36,000 in a week using CrowdJustice, a new website that allows donations to specific cases, such as this one.

“This is our American launch,” says Kip Wainscott, who is helping bring the British-based platform to the U.S. “It’s our first case. We moved up our launch.”

The platform, he says, “is a new approach to accessing justice.”

And while a spokesperson for the University of Virginia has announced that more than 60 students and faculty could be affected by the travel ban, President Teresa Sullivan, Executive Vice President and Provost Tom Katsouleas and several student groups have joined forces to protect them.

University police may ask students for their immigration status during the course of an investigation when that information is relevant, says UVA spokesperson Anthony de Bruyn, but “such a request is very rare at UVA, where the vast majority of identification requests are addressed by an individual providing to the officer his or her university-issued ID or driver’s license.”

Attiya Latif, a third-year student and chair of the Minority Rights Coalition, says her group helped organize the January 28 protest against Trump’s executive order at UVA that drew hundreds of students and community members.

“We are not going to be deterred from our work that we do on a daily basis,” she says. “And we are not going to let fear or despair stop us. …To anyone who’s feeling afraid or isolated, there’s always a way to keep fighting and to keep making a difference.”