Afghan Family Denied Entry Following Temporary Ban
WASHINGTON — On a snowy night in December 2016, clergy, parishioners and friends of St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington's Tenleytown neighborhood gathered in the church’s sanctuary to make plans to provide aid to Syrian refugees and their families. Their motivation came from the grisly picture of a drowned Syrian boy that was circulating the Internet.
A little more than one year later, the same community members waited anxiously at Dulles Airport to find that the Afghan family of three they worked to sponsor was unable to set foot on American soil.
The family was unable to enter the country as a result of President Trump’s executive order imposing temporary travel restrictions on residents of seven Middle Eastern countries. Under the ban, people wishing to travel to the United States from these nations, deemed “detrimental to the interests of the United States”, were unable to receive the visas they needed to actually enter the country. Some, like the family St. Columba’s members planned to sponsor, had already boarded their flight to the U.S. when the order was issued.
“My own thoughts, and the thoughts of many of our volunteers was much sadness and frustration in the seemingly uniformed way the ban was established,” said Deacon Jean Ann Wright, co-chair of St. Columba’s Refugee Response Committee. “The gospel tells us to welcome strangers, and here strangers were being turned away because of where they were born and the religion they practice.”
Rev. Amy Molina-Moore, associate rector for Formation and Pastoral Care at St. Columba’s, said she was “heartsick” among learning of the ban, and its consequent effects on the St. Columba’s community.
“This is not the America I recognize. And this is certainly not the way of Jesus the Christ,” she said in an interview with the Washington Post.
St. Columba’s Episcopal Church was one of at least five places of faith in the District to formally undergo the process of seeking and (almost) receiving a family of Syrian refugees. Their efforts have implications for the future of refugee populations in sanctuary cities across the United States. Their fears remain even as the terms of the travel ban appeared to have cooled off for a moment, after federal courts struck down the ban on the basis of its unconstitutionality.
“[President Trump’s travel ban] is also contrary to the Christian call to “welcome the stranger,” said Lois Hermann, a member of St. Columba’s and a retired State Department employee. “The ban also seems contrary to the American values of openness and welcome to immigrants that define us as a nation.”
St. Columba’s and its member churches are not the only groups wishing and willing to provide aid to immigrants en route to America. Ayuda, a D.C.-based organization, serves citizens of more than 104 countries in the world. It originally catered to immigrants from Latin American countries, but over the past year it has shifted its attention to other nations, particularly those in parts of Europe the Middle East.
Efforts to get a comment from Ayuda were not successful before the story was written. However, according to comments from their executive director on the organization’s website, Ayuda and its staff remain committed to doing all they can legally and legislatively to ensure the safety of all people living in the District of Columbia, regardless of their country of origin.
Today members of St. Columba’s are cautiously optimistic. While the temporary lifting of Trump’s travel ban allowed the family they planned to sponsor to enter the United States (under the condition that they would temporarily stay with a family member in Virginia rather than their original intended sponsor), it is unclear how long they will be able to stay or if other members of their family will be able to join them in America. For now, the family will remain in Virginia as St. Columba’s parishioners cautiously awaited the arrival of a new unit to sponsor in late February.
In spite of it all, however, Wright and others say they trust God’s plan.
“Anxiety and stress continue due to the uncertainty of the situation,” Wright said. “We’re still committed to sponsoring a family. At the end of the day, we are going to get who God sends us.”