Columbus’ international community is partnering with city officials, educators and churches to begin a dialogue about immigration and potential ramifications on local families from executive orders instituting travel bans from predominately Muslim countries.
It’s been just over a month since the 150-member Islamic Society of Columbus, Indiana invited the community to a meeting at IUPUC where an immigration attorney answered questions about President Donald Trump’s initial executive order to temporarily ban immigration from seven primarily Muslim countries.
And although people at the Feb. 3 meeting at IUPUC reacted with applause when they learned during the meeting that a judge had issued a nationwide stay on that order, Trump signed a new order March 6 banning refugees from six predominantly Muslim countries to travel to the U.S. for 90 days. It is scheduled to go into effect Thursday.
Members of the international community in Columbus continue to be on edge about changes in U.S. immigration stances at the federal level, said Hanna Omar of Columbus, a spokeswoman for the Islamic Society, who organized the Feb. 3 meeting with Indianapolis immigration attorney Sarah L. Burrow.
Story continues below gallery
“Everyone is being vigilant now about immigration, where to travel, when to travel. People have been on edge not knowing what their immigration status will look like,” she said. “Nearly every immigrant felt some tension — wanting to know if the ban would be expanded and whether they were being targeted.”
A coalition of city, education and faith-based organizations has formed to focus on immigration, organized through First Presbyterian Church and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbus, Omar said.
Participants in the fledgling organization include teachers and professors, members and/or pastors from North Christian, First Christian and St. Bartholomew Catholic churches, and Su Casa, a social services organization which provides information, programs, services and education to the Hispanic community in Columbus.
Start of collaboration
The group formed from a Nov. 11 rally in downtown Columbus, a protest against bullying incidents reported in Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. schools that was attended by about 300 people, said the Rev. Mary Moore, Unitarian interim minister.Several children reported being bullied in middle school and high school with the words “Build That Wall” spoken to them in school hallways on Election Day, Nov. 8, and in days leading up to the election. Another half dozen or so complaints were reported in BCSC secondary schools following that report, and about six more complaints resulted from taunting in the elementary schools.
Moore attended the rally with the Rev. Felipe Martinez, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, and attended the Feb. 3 meeting with him at IUPUC. The congregations are two of several that have been reaching out on a one-to-one basis with members of the Islamic Society, she said.
From that meeting at IUPUC, Martinez organized the first meeting of the local coalition, she said.
“We want to support the immigrant community,” Moore said. “We want them to feel welcomed and learn about their experiences here. We want to help them integrate into the community and feel comfortable here.”
But the group’s work is described as being in the early stages, with primarily communication and organizational activities so far, Moore said.
Instead of working toward establishing a formal structure, stakeholders would rather be nimble enough to come together when the community needs it, she said.
“We want to be responsive to what is happening,” Moore said. “And sometimes that will mean taking the initiative on a project. This is the Columbus way. We are welcoming. We want to help people feel comfortable here and do what’s helpful.”
Ideas that have developed since the group’s first meeting last month are whether some Columbus churches wish to become sanctuary churches, or whether the Columbus community as a whole could become a sanctuary city — defined as a location in the United States or Canada that has policies designed not to prosecute undocumented people, Omar said.
Some incidents reported
Since Trump’s election, people in Columbus’ international community have seen an uptick in incidents of harassment and taunting, despite attempts to interact with local residents on a personal level, Omar said.“We had four women walking downtown and someone was yelling at them that they shouldn’t wear head scarfs,” Omar said of one report.
Another member of the international community was accosted in a store parking lot, an incident that was reported to the Columbus Human Rights Commission, she said.
Stakeholders are unsure how often harassment is occurring.
“There are a lot of incidents that aren’t being reported,” Omar said. “People are fearful of reporting such acts, and they are continuing. We are trying to get people to report them to police and the human rights commission. We do have people who are fearful.”
In a Feb. 21 taunting incident, Columbus police investigated a report in which a middle-school-age boy on a bicycle was targeted with a racial slur and vulgar hand gesture by a man driving a pickup truck that was flying an American flag from a pole in the truck bed.
The boy went home and told his parents, who reported it to police, but the parents declined to be interviewed by The Republic about what had happened to their son for fear of retaliation.
At the Feb. 3 meeting, Burrow matter-of-factly answered two questions about racial discrimination dating to United States government actions in World War II.
Burrow was asked whether the U.S. was considering internment camps for Muslims, or might consider requiring Muslims to register with the government. During World War II, Americans of Japanese descent were placed in internment camps as part of the war effort.
“I can’t begin to speculate on that,” Burrow said. “I don’t know what to say. There are hundreds of thousands of people who are resisting,” she said, referring to demonstrations at airports when Trump’s first executive order was signed.
“I hope that’s not an issue. But at this juncture, nothing will surprise me,” she said when talking to the group.
As far as the Muslim registry, Burrow said that possibility terrifies her.
“Is it a possibility? I suppose so,” she said.
Columbus as safe haven
Also at the Feb. 3 meeting, Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop and Columbus Police Chief Jon Rohde expressed their concern about what was happening to local international families as a result of the immigration order, and about uneasiness they might feel in the city.Lienhoop told people gathered at the meeting that Columbus has worked hard to develop an inclusive and welcoming environment for individuals from other countries, and that the city valued their contributions and their cultures.
“We are glad you are here, and that will not change,” he said.
Lienhoop told the group that the city also valued their contributions to the workforce.
Later in the meeting, during a question-and-answer session, Lienhoop was asked whether he would be willing to contact Vice President Mike Pence, a Columbus native, about concerns among the international community in his hometown.
Lienhoop said he had not yet considered that but was willing to do so if needed.
Rohde reassured people at the Feb. 3 meeting that the police department’s priority is the safety of all community residents.
“This is your home as it is our home,” he told the group. “We are here to keep you physically safe, and to help you feel safe mentally. We will support you any way we can.”
If any member of the international community experiences harassment or taunting, Rohde asked them to contact the police department immediately so officers can help them develop a safety plan for dealing with the situation.
In an effort to promote more understanding in the Columbus community about Islamic customs and to build relations with the Islamic community, the Islamic Society and the Unitarian church sponsored Columbus Hijab Day on March 4 at Viewpoint Books downtown.The hijab is a scarf head covering worn by some Muslim women partly as a sign of modesty. During the event, non-Muslim women were invited to take a clean hijab and try it on, or take it with them and wear it for part of the day in what organizers called The Hijab Challenge.
The event, which attracted about 120 people of all backgrounds, was a spinoff of World Hijab Day, which is Feb. 1, and also of Women’s History Month, Omar said.
Omar said Hijab Day was intended to show what women empowerment looks like in all forms, with the head scarf only one component.
In addition to showing visitors how to put a Hijab on, members of the Muslim community answered questions about the logistics of wearing a head scarf and what it means.
The questions went beyond “Why wear it?” to what women’s rights look like in Islam, she said.
Omar spent some time clarifying misconceptions about head scarves and oppression of women.
“Freedom means having the choice to wear it or not,” she said.
But perhaps the most important message Omar said she was trying to get across was that people of the Muslim faith want to get to know their neighbors on a personal level, even as uncertainty continues on the national level regarding immigration.
“There are a lot of misconceptions out there and we are creating a message to combat those misconceptions,” she said.
With formation of the new coalition, Omar said the Islamic Society hopes to show how community organizations are working together on projects such as Hijab Day.
“We want to educate people about tolerance of different cultures — and how these cultures have impacted history, around the world and in America,” she said.
President Donald Trump issued a new immigration executive order March 6 which suspends immigration into the U.S. from six predominately Muslim countries — Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Syria and Libya.
Refugees from those countries are subject to a 90-day ban on travel to the U.S.
Iraq was on a previously issued executive order, but is not on the current order scheduled to take effect Thursday. It does not revoke existing visas approved before that date and does not explicitly apply to current lawful permanent residents and Green Card holders, according to the Associated Press.
To learn more about efforts to help the international community in Columbus feel welcome, visit:
- Islamic Society of Columbus Indiana Facebook page at facebook.com/iscindiana
- First Presbyterian Church, Columbus at fpccolumbus.org/
- Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Columbus at uucci.org
- Columbus Human Rights Commission at columbus.in.gov/human-rights/
- Su Casa at sucasacolumbus.com/
- Engage Columbus at engagecolumbus.com/
Bartholomew County’s largest foundation, The Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County, has a Welcoming Community initiative which led to the creation of Engage Columbus.
Engage Columbus is a program of Heritage Fund. Its mission is to connect community members to the information, resources, opportunities and people that will make them feel welcome and engaged in the Columbus community, the organization’s website states.
It has it roots in two surveys conducted by The Heritage Fund beginning in 2011 which indicated that certain groups in the community were unaware how to connect with the community’s resources and needed a more formalized way to learn about Columbus.
The goal is to help residents connect to the community and for people in Columbus to help them love where they live, and ultimately retain talent in the community and drive the economy, said Lara Hodson, Engage Columbus program manager.
Through the support of partners including Cummins, Columbus Regional Health, ehe Columbus Area Visitors Center, Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, Taylor Brothers Construction and LHP, Engage Columbus was launched as a three-year pilot in March 2015.
To learn more about Engage Columbus, 431 Sixth St. in downtown Columbus, visit engagecolumbus.com.