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Notes from the Ground

America is Better Than This: Everyday Georgians Speak Up for Refugees

Published August 26, 2019

Darlene Lynch is head of external relations at CVT Georgia

For those of us who still view the U.S. as a beacon of hope for those fleeing war, torture and other cruelty, these are tough times. In the midst of an unprecedented, global humanitarian crisis, with more than 25 million refugees without safe homes, the Trump administration has taken steps to shut out virtually all those seeking asylum at the southern border and reduce refugee resettlement to all-time lows.

Officials are now considering “zeroing out” the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program in 2020, refusing to allow even one person a chance at safety and a new life in this vast and prosperous country. In the words of former Vice President Mondale, a member of CVT’s National Advisory Council, “A country once recognized as a respected humanitarian leader, the United States now slams the door to all but a relative few.”

This month, ordinary Americans in cities and towns across the U.S. stood up to say, America is better than this. In the small Georgia town of Clarkston, sometimes called “the Ellis Island of the South,” CVT joined with its partners in Georgia’s Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies (CRSA) to host a town hall as part of the national Rise for Refuge Day of Action. The town hall was a chance for Georgians to hear from experts and community leaders on how they could send a strong message to the White House and Congress that we are a nation of refuge, not rejection.

This day had particular meaning for those of us at CVT. We are committed to healing the unimaginable wounds that human beings inflict upon each other, and we know that nearly half of all refugees and asylum-seekers in the U.S. are torture survivors.  We are inspired by the courage, determination and gratitude of our clients and the many others who, having received a lifeline from our country, go on to contribute to their communities in meaningful ways.

The only problem was that it was a beautiful summer Saturday in Georgia, and we weren’t sure anyone would show up. It was the last weekend before the start of school and Georgia’s lakes, rivers and swimming pools beckoned.

But here’s the good news: people not only came; they came in droves! They filled the auditorium and spilled out into the hallways. There was the grandmother who came with her two grandchildren bearing homemade signs that said, “Welcome Home Refugees.” There was a quiet young woman who was uncomfortable in crowds, but came anyway to distribute homemade “Georgia Loves Refugees” jewelry, which she’d stayed up late to make the night before. Inspired by her own family’s flight from Nazi Europe a generation ago, there was a volunteer whose decision to show up that day was deeply personal. There were members of the Burmese Rohingya community who came to translate for fellow refugees who expressed fears and sought advice in a private resource room. And then there were the photographers who gave up weekend plans to capture the true spirit of what it means to be welcoming in America.

The crowd listened to calls to action from political, faith, nonprofit and refugee leaders. U.S. Congressman Hank Johnson urged each person to contact their representatives and ask them to support the GRACE Act, of which he is a sponsor. The Act would prevent the destruction of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and restore admissions levels to the historic average of 95,000 per year. (You too can take action by clicking here.)

Perhaps most moving, though, were the words of Aimee Zangadou. Aimee shared her refugee story: how her family fled the Rwandan genocide in 1994 when she and her siblings were still just children, and how a Georgia church and everyday Georgians came together to welcome them and give them hope for a new life. As director of refugee and immigrant programs at a local resettlement agency, Aimee now helps other refugees resettle and thrive in Georgia.

We are grateful to the CRSA; Representative Hank Johnson, Aimee Zangadou and the other speakers for the event; and to all those who came out on August 3 to stand up for America’s fundamental value of providing safe haven to those in greatest need.  Like Vice President Mondale, let us continue to remind our leaders that shutting America’s doors in a time of humanitarian crisis does not make us great. It makes us very small indeed.

(You can watch local news coverage of the Rise for Refuge Town Hall in Clarkston here.)

Photos by Harmony Blackwell

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