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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Love triumphs over hate

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Steve’s original article in Rhode Island’s Future is loaded with photos and videos – video clips as well as full coverage of the entire event. I wanted to make sure our Charlestown audience knew about this article because of the overtly bigoted remarks made against refugees by local state Senator Elaine Morgan and curmudgeon Jim Mageau. - WC

Hundreds of people carrying signs of acceptance and support for refugees and immigrants filled the State House today in response to an anti-Syrian refugee rally sponsored by the Boston based and Orwellian named Americans for Peace and Tolerance(APT) and featuring former Michigan Congressman Pete Hoekstra. Russell Taub, a Republican candidate seeking US Representative David Cicilline‘s seat, introduced the event.

State Representative Mike Chippendale, originally advertised to be part of the event, made one of the smartest moves of his political career by distancing himself as far as possible from this mess.
Things did not go well for the anti-Syrian refugee camp.

As Charles Jacobs of APT spoke, he was several times interrupted by those in attendance. He was called repeatedly on his racist and inflammatory speech. I wrote about Jacobs’ problematic and bigoted past here.

Jacobs pressed on through his speech, if for no other reason than to have posted this fake news story about the event here. (Note that the story says nothing about the crowd assembled against Jacobs, that the picture used gives the impression that the crowd was there in support of his message and that the piece gives the impression that the crowd could hear and cared about his message.)

Jacobs became visibly flustered and several times argued with the crowd, turning the event into a call and response. Jacobs claims to represent the interests of American Jews, but the Jewish people who I spoke with at the event all told me that Jacobs is a bigot who does not in any way represent them.

Pete Hoekstra did no better than Jacobs.  At one point in his speech, Hoekstra mentioned genocide, prompting a Brown student to ask, “What about the genocide in Palestine?” In response, a photographer with Hoekstra and Jacobs’ group asked, “What Palestine?” eliciting first a shocked silence, then a loud denunciation.

Tired of what she called Hoekstra’s lies, Sterk Zaza, a Syrian immigrant, stood and asked Hoekstra, “Are you better than me?” Hoekstra never answered.

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Afterwards, Hoekstra said,  in conversation with Omar Bah of the Refugee Dream Center, “I’ve been in politics for 18 years, and I have never been met with a group as hostile and uncivil as what you are. Congratulations.”

The anti-Syrian refugee speakers were continually disrupted throughout their presentations.

The counter protest and the pro-Syrian refugee event held afterwards were organized in part by the RI State Council of Churches, the Dorcas Institute, the Refugee Dream Center, members and families in the Syrian community, Quaker Friends, CAIR-MA, the Standing on the Side of Love committees of several Unitarian Universalist churches, and perhaps 200 students from various organizations at Brown University.

After the failed and frankly embarrassing anti-refugee  event was over, Hoekstra and Jacobs left the State House and the pro-Syrian rally began. John Jacobs from the the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MA) introduced the speakers. First up was State Senator Josh Miller.

Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman spoke next. Rabbi Voss-Altman said that he stood before the crowd as “a proud descendant of Jewish refugees who came here,” to America.

Omar Bah of the Refugee Dream Center came to America after being hunted, imprisoned and  tortured in his home country. “What America stands for is love, is openness and its welcoming spirit…”

Businessman Youssef Bahralom is a gemologist and “very proud to be a Syriana and an American at the same time…”

RI State Representative Aaron Regunberg talked of being descended from a Jewish grandfather who escaped the Nazis. He was saddened to learn that the United States did not open its borders to Jewish refugees out of ignorance and bigotry:

“It’s up to all of us here to make sure this time around,” said Regunberg, “the story has a different ending. This time, instead of succumbing to our basest instincts, Rhode Island stands up for its most fundamental values.”

Reverend Donald Anderson of the RI Council of Churches, said, “Unfortunately there are those among us who would turn their backs on our tradition of welcoming all faith traditions. But we must not let those who would prey upon fear and prejudice to snuff out the flame of religious freedom that makes our state and country so special.”

Sterk Zaza said she went to school in Syria, and contrary to the words of Charles Jacobs, “I was not taught to hate Jews. I was not taught to hate Christians. I have walked the streets of streets of Syraia and I have shaken the hands of Jews, of Christians, of Shia, of Sunni… and the man who was standing here, telling all these lies, couldn’t even answer me and tell me why he was any different than I am.”

Steve Ahlquist is an award-winning journalist, writer, artist and founding member of the Humanists of Rhode Island, a non-profit group dedicated to reason, compassion, optimism, courage and action. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of any organization of which he is a member. and Twitter: @SteveAhlquist