“My little girl should be with his daddy,” said 30-year-old Basem Alkahlani, his voice cracking with emotion. Like so many Muslims, he was plunged into fear and uncertainty by the recent executive order banning travel to the U.S. from his native Yemen and six other majority-Muslim nations. His hope to reunite with his wife and two-year-old daughter has been put on hold indefinitely. Yesterday, more than 200 people huddled in the cold to hear his heart-breaking story. “You coming here picked me up,” Basem told us, “and I feel I am not alone.”
When my partner, Bill, had asked members of the Asheville Islamic Center how allies could show our support in this frightening and difficult time, they warmly invited the public to yesterday’s mid-day Jum’ah prayer. Grateful for the gift of a headscarf from a friend at Christmas, I rummaged through my closet and located my only long skirt and joined the other women at the back of the prayer room, sitting in a small sea of colorful hijabs, saris, and burqas. So many people showed up from local churches and synagogues to offer solidarity that we had to move the gathering that followed outside. After several more testimonies and heartfelt exchanges of thanks, we gratefully received hospitality in the form of donuts and plates of hot Pakistani curry.
Last Saturday a crowd of about the same size packed into a local Episcopal church for a standing-room-only workshop focused on offering protective Sanctuary to immigrants facing the threat of deportation. Our leaders are Spanish-speaking young people, several of whom came to the mosque yesterday and are also in partnership with the LGBT group SONG (Southerners on New Ground). In the decades that I’ve been involved in this kind of work, I’ve never seen so broad a local movement of people drawn together by resistance and hope.
On the eve of the presidential inauguration, several of us from Circle of Mercy’s immigration mission group gathered at the home that Bill and I share to keep a vigil in the tradition of the Watch Night Service. Watch Night is typically traced back to New Year’s Eve of 1862, when enslaved communities stayed up all night waiting for the Emancipation Proclamation to take effect on January 1st. When I was collecting oral histories among African-American churches during my time as an Associate Conference Minister for the United Church of Christ, I was told that the custom is actually much older—that enslaved families stayed up every New Year’s Eve, because January 1st was when masters decided whom they would sell off. Families facing the imminent threat of separation spent all night singing and praying and hoping that they would be together for another year.
Our mission group adapted this tradition of lamentation and hope to our current context and energies. We didn’t stay up all night. But after sharing a potluck meal, we spent a long evening in silence, interspersed with songs and scriptures, poems and prayers. We listened to several testimonies drawn from interviews with undocumented persons already suffering from—or living in fear of—deportation and separation from their families. One of them was Vanessa, a junior in high school who lives in California with her twin sister and her grandparents. Her mother and two other sisters live in Mexico with her father, who was deported and cannot re-enter the U.S. In her words, “Life is hard without my family. My only dream since I was six is to have my daddy here with me. Is it really too much to ask for?”
No, Vanessa, it is not too much to ask for. And, yes, Basem, a daughter should be with his daddy in a place of welcome and safety. May we all commit to making it so.