Over 200 people gathered in Fort Greene Wednesday to express solidarity with refugees from across the world and discuss ways to connect and help immigrants fleeing war and political persecution in Syria and other countries.
Refugees from Syria, Kosovo and Nigeria spoke at the forum organized by a coalition of pro-refugee groups, including Fort Greene Peace, Brooklyn for Peace and the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church Social Justice Committee. The event, held at the church, included a short excerpt of the play “Anna Asli Suriyah” or “I Come From Syria” as well as performances by several foreign musicians.
The event follows a campaign started by Fort Greene Peace in June to raise awareness about refugee issues. Members of Fort Greene Peace, including Eric Goldman, one of the founders, put up posters around Brooklyn that featured a father and son with the title “Refugees are Welcome Here.”
“The refugee crisis is a direct result of U.S. invasions,” said Goldman a 70-year-old retired teacher from Fort Greene, who has campaigned against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The group decided to hold the forum after immigration became a major topic of concern during and after the presidential election. “It showed that this is an issue that has been going on for centuries,” said Goldman. “The Jews, the Italians, the Germans, the Irish were all made to feel unwelcomed. People wanted to know more, and we wanted to put them in touch with refugees and those that support them.”
For some, the meeting was an opportunity to get back in touch with their roots.
“It’s helping me to get more involved in the Syrian community,” said Michael Hisry, 22-year-old nanny and part-time community organizer whose father was a Syrian immigrant. “I feel disconnected with what has been going on in Syria, especially in queer communities,” he said. “There’s very little information about their struggles.”
Panelists from Syria and elsewhere talked about those struggles. Audu Kadiri, originally from Lagos, Nigeria and now living in East New York, described his work as a community organizer and LGBTQ advocate back home. He fled to the United States and applied for asylum after the Nigerian government signed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act in 2014. The law made gay marriage illegal and banned organizations advocating for same sex marriage. Kadiri could have faced ten years in jail for his work as an LGBTQ activist.
“I came here to talk about my experiences as an asylum seeker,” he said. “I want to clear misconceptions and let people know the challenges that we face, that asylum seekers are not lazy but brave men and women who have to start all over again in a new land.”
One person attending the event wanted to go beyond changing misconceptions.
“There should be no borders at all,” said Adam Friedman. “My family were once refugees from Europe, and so it’s only right that I support refugees now.”
Friedman is concerned about the future. “I don’t think things will get any better after the election,” said the 33-year-old activist from Woodside, Queens. “But things weren’t great under Obama. He’s taken very few refugees and deported so many people.”
The election was a constant theme throughout the night. “Even before Trump’s election I was concerned about how the U.S. was supporting refugees,” said Julia Konrad, a 25-year-old high school teacher from Boerum Hill, who came looking for opportunities to help refugees. “I will do anything I can,” she said. Konrad plans to go to the next Brooklyn for Peace Event, she said, and is also looking into volunteer opportunities at a nonprofit that works with refugees.
“I think it’s always important to hear as many stories as possible since the experience of being a refugee or asylum seeker in the U.S. is never the same for all people,” she said.
One of the stories she heard was from panelist Flora Mejzinolli, 29, from Bedford-Stuyvesant who earlier in the evening had described her experiences as a refugee fleeing to the U.S. from war torn Kosovo. “When I came to the U.S., I felt welcomed,” she said.
However, she also noted that things have changed.
“I think that the politics here right now are very tense,” she said. “The way we are portraying refugees in the media is negative and we are detaching them from their experiences, which is fleeing bombs for their lives.”
Despite this Maria Blacque-Belair, 59, from Astoria was hopeful.
“It’s wonderful so many people came tonight, it creates an awareness of what refugees are going through,” she said. “It helps break down stereotypes that all refugees are criminals and terrorists.”
A founder and executive director at the Refugee Immigration Fund, Blacque-Belair said that the next step was to make new refugees feel welcome and to stop them from going underground because of fear. She saw the event’s turnout as a positive note.
“It’s good to see people I didn’t expect to come,” she said. “For one, I like the fact that there seem to be more young people here than us old people who have been on millions of demonstrations.”