Nedira Achmed is nervous.
The 19-year-old hasn’t been speaking English for long, and she’s about to stand in front of thousands of people and deliver a very personal speech.
So when she takes the stage, the first thing she does is apologize for her poor speaking ability. Then, she moves on to the story of her life: how she grew up in Somalia in the midst of a civil war, and how her father died when she was 8. How her mother said they needed a new life, so she moved the family to neighboring Ethiopia.
It was then that the words stopped coming.
She becomes flustered as the pause drags. But before she has a chance to feel embarrassed, a wave of applause and cheers crashes over her instead, and she continues her story.
After a week in which President Donald Trump tweeted about cracking down on “illegal criminals” and federal officials arrested hundreds of immigrants living in the country illegally, thousands of people packed into Gonzaga University’s Hemmingson Center Ballroom to hear about a particular type of person who comes into the country legally: a refugee.
Some were there to protest, with signs supporting the recent 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision ruling against reinstating the ban, or protesting Trump himself.
But most were there on Sunday afternoon to learn, either directly from refugees who’d gone through the process, or from elected officials, World Relief workers or professors standing in their corner.
“There are no days off when our nation’s fundamental values are under attack,” said Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, who recently championed an ordinance that would prohibit a religious registry. “We must yell even louder when the bully is at the pulpit, disparaging us from his Twitter account. The city of Spokane will yell with you.”
When Trump signed the sweeping executive order Jan. 27, it effectively barred all refugees from anywhere in the world for 120 days, and placed an indefinite ban on refugees from Syria. For World Relief Spokane, that meant a 100 percent reduction in the amount of refugees coming into the city.
That same weekend, when hundreds of thousands protested across the country in airports or elsewhere, Mark Finney, a resettlement specialist at World Relief Spokane and an adjunct professor at Whitworth University, didn’t join in. Instead, he got the ball rolling on Sunday’s event, which easily packed the Hemmingson Center Ballroom and had 300 people in overflow downstairs.
“We really wanted to educate people and mobilize people,” Finney said. “The whole ordeal is really impacting a lot of people right now. The refugee community in Spokane has expressed to us that they’re feeling very scared.”
Jinan Abdolrazzaq echoed that fear. She came here from Iraq in 2011 after her husband died. But because she couldn’t come with her four sons and daughter all at once, she had to leave all but her youngest child behind while she went through the vetting process. Her 20-year-old son died as a result.
“I lost two people,” she said. “I’m not going to hurt people.”
Abdolrazzaq implored the crowd, asking them to recognize her as a hard worker and not somebody who would ever hurt others. She talked about how the travel ban has negatively swayed the view of refugees, and how some in the country are lumping everyone together – Muslims, refugees, terrorists.
It turned out she was preaching to the choir, as she would learn when they roared in applause as she spoke her final words.
“I have four jobs now,” she said. “I want to show you how refugees love you and work hard. I’m not perfect, but I’m good.”
After the court’s decision this past week, World Relief Spokane started to again see refugees make their way into Spokane. Saturday night, Finney said, the area’s first refugees in more than two weeks arrived at the airport.
But that hasn’t changed the political climate, said Sorayya Mohammadi, who came from Afghanistan.
“It seems as though the U.S. is going to close its doors on refugees,” she said, to which a member of the crowd responded, “Not if we can help it.”
Mohammadi is Muslim. She couldn’t go to school in her home country and was forced to leave because of the Taliban.
When she finally made it to America, she said she “found hope” and a “place to build our dreams.”
She said some of that hope left her when the order was signed, especially when she thought about the people in similar situations who left “to save their lives.”
“We just need a safe place to live,” she concluded. “A place to call home. Please don’t close the doors of hope.”