First Person

“Where were you when the refugee ban happened?”

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Refugee campaign advisor Isra Chaker speaks about her experience after President Trump ordered the first travel ban at Oxfam's "Uniting for Refugees" event held in Boston on January 22. Photo: Lisa Aimola/Oxfam

How President Trump’s executive order created a unifying moment for our country

Sara Klausner is an Organizing and Alliances intern at Oxfam America

Where were you when the travel ban happened? That was the question put to our panel of experts during an event marking the one-year anniversary of President Trump’s executive order suspending all refugee admissions to the United States for 120 days and citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen for 90 days.

It was a call to action for Oxfam’s refugee campaign advisor Isra Chaker. She took to social media to rally the public against Trump’s order slamming the door on refugees. Susan Cohen, chair of immigration practice at Boston law firm Mintz Levin, recalled seeing airports flooded with protests in support of the citizens from the seven banned countries. Cynthia Gabriel, senior director of organizing and activism at Amnesty International, discussed the forums that arose to open dialogue and halt misinformation. She watched young people and student groups mobilize to stand against bigotry. And, Jeffrey Thielman, CEO of the International Institute of New England, saw an upsetting increase in the number of cancelled resettlement cases.

Within two days of going into effect, a federal judge in New York blocked part of the order as a violation of citizens’ rights to due process and equal protection. By March 6, a new version of the ban was presented, which no longer included Iraqi citizens. This was met by a lawsuit from Hawaii and soon, a nationwide block. Currently, refugee admissions are set capped at 45,000—the lowest level in the history of the refugee resettlement program.

Sitting in the audience, I was struck by how this question resonated with a pattern observed throughout history. Each speaker easily placed themselves and their exact sentiments at the time of the travel ban’s announcement, the same way others can do when asked, “Where were you when JFK was shot?” Or, “What were you doing when the first tower fell?” The ability to clearly recall your thoughts and emotions in connection with one event is a powerful experience that reveals itself in times of profound change.

There is a revolution on its way and it’s time to “hand the mic over” (as Isra fervently emphasized we must do) to those who know the narrative. This isn’t my story, but as a fellow human, I’m excited to support the refugees whom it belongs to. Now more than ever, we must attend educational forums, partake in uncomfortable conversations, and yearn to correct our misunderstandings. If we do those things, we will be a generation that remembers where we were when we took back our country and shared it with those in need of refuge.

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