WASHINGTON, D.C. — Refugees were treated to a night of foot-tapping music, artwork, legal consultations, and food from diverse parts of the world at an “alternative inauguration ball” this week.
Roughly 600 guests attended the sold-out Refugee Ball at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, where refugees and immigrants were celebrated for the contributions that they have made to the United States. The event was just one of many activities unfolding within the nation’s capital in the days leading up to President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration.
But there was an undercurrent of fear for some people at the party.
The executive branch has a lot of control over immigration policy. When Trump takes office on Friday, he could immediately start making changes to the way the country treats immigrants, refugees, and people seeking asylum in the United States.
Trump has already promised to crack down on refugee resettlement, put immigrants from majority-Muslim countries through an “extreme vetting” process, and create a so-called Muslim registry.
Organizers of the ball said that the event wasn’t necessarily a refutation of Trump’s election victory, but rather a celebration of the values that immigrants have brought to the country.
“These are people who are working to further American values and to further American goals,” Jason Dzubow, an immigration attorney based in Washington, D.C. who helped organize the event, told ThinkProgress. “Many of my clients are people who served directly with the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq or who served directly with USAID.”
Downstairs in the Social Hall, guests mingled with immigrant artists and vendors showcasing coffee and desserts from the Middle East. Upstairs in the synagogue’s sanctuary, refugees from countries like Tibet and Sudan performed beneath the 69-foot cathedral style, Fabergé egg-like dome decorated with motifs like those destroyed in the Holocaust.
The immigrant vendors represented included Manyang Reath Kher, one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” who now owns a Richmond, Virginia-based coffee business that employs South Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia. His goal is to help other refugees be economically self-sufficient.
“When [Manyang] came here, he realized all the opportunities that he got and his goal was to give back,” Akandu Nwosu, the marketing manager at Humanity Helping Sudan Project, which oversees 734 Coffee, said. “Aside from having premium coffee, we have a premium cause: refugee awareness.”
Since 1975, the United States has admitted more than 3 million refugees. But the diversity and breadth of experience that people like Reath Kher bring to the country may soon come to a grinding halt.
Despite the fact that potential refugees undergo an intensive 18 to 24 month-long screening process, Trump has suggested his administration will seriously restrict migration flows from certain countries, citing security concerns. These countries will likely include Iraq and Syria, where foreign fighters have gone to fight for the extremist group Islamic State. Trump’s restrictions in this area could keep out 29 million people each year, the New York Times reported in July 2016.
As the incoming administration is set to take up a stringent agenda that could have dire repercussions for refugees-in-waiting and other immigrants currently waiting for their applications to clear through the federal system, lawyers were on hand at the ball to hold “know your rights” workshops to help clients who were worried about what Trump’s policies would mean for them. For some lawyers, the concerns they fielded at the workshops were similar to what they have already been hearing from their current clients.
“My Muslim clients have been in distress,” Lindsey Wilkes, managing partner at the Washington, D.C.-based Kayi & Wilkes PLLC, said. Wilkes’ call volume increased exponentially from clients and strangers hoping she would know what Trump’s campaign promises would mean for them. One client went into “days of depression” questioning “whether he would lose his safety.”
“Time and time again, I would have clients in tears that they had come to the United States because this had always been their beacon of safety,” Wilkes said. “They left their country because they were being targeted and they literally feel like they have nowhere to go.”
That includes Rosie, a Muslim refugee from a majority-Muslim country who asked not to be identified by her real name or her home country because she’s afraid the government will retaliate against her family members.
Rosie came to the United States as a refugee in October 2015 after government officials in her home country threatened her life for working closely with the Christian community. She says that coming to the U.S. saved her life. As a disabled person, she has been grateful for the opportunity to get training in the D.C. area that allows her to work. As Wilkes’ guest at the ball, Rosie felt at home being among other people who have gone through similar experiences.
She said she supports efforts to combat terrorism, but wishes other people understood that doesn’t represent her entire religion or her whole country.
“People in my country are normal people,” she said. “I ask that people…ask if this is Islam and if this is the whole community of Muslims.”
Even as refugees felt less afraid on this night at a ball where people spoke openly about “welcoming refugees,” they expressed hope that Trump and other Americans will see their value beyond their immigration status.
“Me being a refugee is a situation, it’s my status as a moment,” Rosie said.
“It’s a bad light towards refugees now, but our goal is to shed a positive light on the current crisis and get people to understand what refugees want,” Nwosu said. He also explained his hope for Americans to lend a compassionate ear for Reath Kher as a way to understand why people like him are so eager to give back to the country that gave them refuge.
“This is someone America should be proud of,” Nwosu said. “This is the American dream — coming here, seeking an opportunity, and making something out of nothing.”