One candle at a time, light spread throughout the Sunken Garden Thursday night, illuminating the faces of students, faculty and others gathered to voice their opposition to the recent executive order that temporarily bans travel from seven Muslim-majority countries and suspends America’s refugee admissions program.
“It’s about showing solidarity and love for our Muslim, Middle Eastern, refugee brothers and sisters, to show that these people are welcome and loved on this campus, in this town, in this region and in this country,” said Sam Steed ’18, who organized the event.
Hundreds of members of the campus and local communities, some carrying signs, gathered for the “No Ban in My Name” rally, which was sponsored by Amnesty International, the Wesley Foundation, the Muslim Student Organization and the Hindu, Sikh and Jain Student Association. Donations were collected for Amnesty International, and students, faculty and others from the campus and local communities spoke to the crowd about their experiences.
“It’s been a very rough week for all of us,” said one W&M student who is directly affected by the order. The university confirmed earlier this week that William & Mary has four students on student visas (including one graduate student out of the country and unable to return at the moment) who are from the seven countries listed in the executive order. “I just wanted to thank you so much,” said the student who spoke at the rally. “It’s the first time that I feel very, very, very supported, and that means a lot to me.”
Several leaders of student organizations spoke at the gathering, including the Muslim Student Association and the Middle Eastern Students Association.
“It is our responsibility, not only as Americans but also as humans, to help these refugees to the fullest extent of our capability, just as we would hope for ourselves,” said Abdelrahman Aboulatta ’18, president of the Muslim Student Association. “It is our responsibility to accept them with open arms and to not stand silently when told otherwise. Let us hope that all suffering from this crisis will soon be met with relief and peace of mind.”
Stephen Sheehi, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Chair of Middle East Studies and professor of Arabic studies, encouraged the crowd to channel their indignation. Faraz Sheikh, an assistant professor of religious studies from Pakistan, shared his own immigration experience, and Tuška Beneš, an associate professor of history, discussed her husband’s journey as an Iranian political refugee who sought asylum in Germany.
“When the U.S. closes its door to refugees, we are putting in danger, silencing, abandoning exactly those people who are fighting for the values that we hold dear, ”Beneš said.
David Katz, rabbi of Temple Beth El in Williamsburg, and Max Blalock, campus minister for the Wesley Foundation, also spoke to the audience, as did immigration attorney Sharon Powell and other students.
“Allowing our nation to become a place that is not welcoming, that is not safe for those fleeing persecution or seeking a better life would be a betrayal of our best ideals, our most fundamental religious beliefs and our own stories and identities,” said Katz.
Salma Elsayed-Ali ’19 was amazed by the number of students and community members who attended the rally.
“It really shows that everyone cares about us, and not just us Muslims, but women, people who identify with different gender identities, African-Americans, I think everyone is in the same boat,” Elsayed-Ali said.
Although he wasn’t initially going to speak at the event, the student who has been affected by the ban stepped up to the microphone at the end of the event to share a few, powerful words.
“Right now, everything for me is on the line, and you guys being here, it’s cold, people want to take a nap or sleep, so this time and in this weather you coming out and supporting us, that’s something and I’m not going to forget for the rest of my life,” he said. “Thank you so much.”