Spokane Community members rallied in support of refugee communities by packing Gonzaga’s John J. Hemmingson Center ballroom Sunday.
In conjunction with both Gonzaga University and Whitworth University, World Relief, Spokane’s largest refugee resettlement agency, brought specific attention and support to the refugees already settled in Spokane.
“This is an education experience,” said Mark Finney, resettlement specialist with World Relief Spokane. “That’s why we’ve done this as a collaboration with the two universities.”
The rally featured introductions by Finney, Gonzaga’s Student Body President Caleb Dawson, Whitworth President Beck Taylor and Jack Lewis, Ph.D., dean of the Moody Bible Institute Spokane. All introductions featured welcoming words of support for refugees and thanks to the individuals in the community who continue to support the resettlement of refugees.
“I am so grateful you all are gathered there to express support and love for our refugees,” said Taylor via a prerecorded video message. “There is no question in my mind that Spokane benefits from the refugees in our community.”
Both City Council President Ben Stuckart and Spokane Police Department Sgt. Glen Bartlett made appearances at the rally to voice their support for the solidarity shown by the community. Stuckart called on the community to continuously support the refugees in the Spokane Community and to support refugees nationally by reaching out to elected officials.
Upendra Acharya, associate professor of law at Gonzaga University, also spoke at the rally as a portion of the rally’s educational component. Acharya gave a brief overview of refugee’s rights and the vetting processes employed to screen potential refugees before they are accepted into the United States.
“The people who fear political or other forms of persecution and torture based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, those are refugees,” Acharya said.
Individuals who qualify as a refugee using the terms above are entitled to specific rights, such as the right to education, the right to fair housing, the right to freedom of religion and the right to gainful employment in their new country, Acharya said.
Acharya cited both the United Nation’s 1942 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention treaty as the two documents that laid the groundwork for refugee policies today.
“The United States government has ratified that treaty,” said Acharya. “Those treaties are the supreme law of the land under Article VI of the U.S. constitution. So therefore, the United States has a treaty obligation, even under constitutional law.”
According to treaty law, refugees who have come to a country seeking asylum cannot be deterred and sent back to the territory they came from, nor can they be penalized if they enter a country illegally, Acharya said when distinguishing the difference between a refugee and an immigrant.
Vetting processes for refugee entry are extensive and can take 2-6 years, Acharya said during his presentation. Potential refugees who want to seek asylum must first register with the the United Nations and go through various interviews, which determines their eligibility for refugee status.
From there, if an individual is granted refugee status, they are referred to the various countries that accept refugees. If a refugee is referred to the United States, they must be interviewed by the U.S. State Department to determine their eligibility to enter the United States.
In total, potential refugees who wish to settle in the United States will undergo approximately 20 steps of verification, including an extensive interview with a Homeland Security officer, an indepth health screening and around eight background checks. By the time the refugee has completed the process, Acharya said they have taken almost 600 questionnaires.
The rally also featured stories told by former refugees who have now since settled in Spokane. Sooraya, a refugee from Afghanistan came to the United States two years ago after being a refugee for 15 years. After fleeing to Iran with her husband and two sons, Sooraya said her family was unhappy in Iran because of the way the country treats refugees.
“We couldn’t work, we couldn’t go to school, and I couldn’t send my children to school,” Sooraya said.
Former refugees Nesreen and Jinan also told their stories to the crowd, followed by Amina Fields, president of Refugee Connection Spokane’s board of directors, whose family came to the United States as refugees from Vietnam in the 1980s to flee religious and ethnic persecution.
“I feel I should speak out against the ban that hurts the policies my family benefited from,” said Fields. “It’s un-American.”
EWU senior Leah Wilson was in attendance at the rally, helping to support the World Relief booth outside the event. Wilson studies International Affairs and interned for World Relief Spokane while doing her senior capstone on refugee studies.
Wilson was invited to present her capstone research on the European refugee crisis at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Memphis, Tennessee in April 2017
“[This event] is important for the community of Spokane because we have a lot of refugees in this community,” said Wilson. “It’s important for the community to be informed.”
Wilson is currently working alongside Kristin Edquist, director of international affairs, and Kassahun Kebede, associate professor of anthropology, to bring a refugee panel to EWU.
“Ever since the Executive Order, I have felt very responsible to be an advocate for refugees,” said Wilson. “I wanted to bring an understanding to EWU by bringing a variety of refugee testimonies and scholarly analysis to the community.”