Three Faiths, One Message: Welcome the Stranger

Faith communities come together in support of refugee resettlement locally and statewide

Interfaith Vigil for Refugees at Saint John's United Methodist Church on Feb. 9 (Photo by John Anderson)

On Sunday, three faith communities – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity – came together at Saint John's United Methodist Church in recognition of one shared value: You must welcome the stranger and those in need.

Joining them were seven nonprofits and a panel of Austin refugee speakers, who had gathered in solidarity for an interfaith vigil protesting Governor Abbott's and President Trump's anti-immigrant policies. In response to Abbott's (failed) attempt to ban refugee resettlement last month, the vigil was organized to support refugee resettlement in Austin and across the state of Texas.

"No commandment is repeated more in the sacred Torah than this mitzvah [commandment]: to love one another," Rabbi Kelly Levy of Congregation Beth Israel told the crowd. "It is easy to love your neighbor, because your neighbor is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger – one whose color, culture, or creed is different than yours. That's why the command 'Love the stranger because you were once strangers' resonates so often throughout the Bible."

Like Rabbi Levy, Imam Islam Mossaad of North Austin Muslim Community Center cited scriptures that urge the faithful to welcome the stranger, reciting a Quranic verse in Arabic; condemned current immigration policies as "discriminatory, xenophobic, and hateful"; and urged people of faith to speak out against injustice and act charitably.

In addition to speeches from faith leaders, five refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Myanmar, and Eritrea spoke at the vigil. All of them live in Austin.

The final speaker, Tahaguas Abraha Haillemariam, who was resettled in Austin last year, spoke about her childhood in Eritrea.

"I left home when I was 12 years old. I was [too] young to understand the social [and] political atmosphere of Eritrea, but I was not pardoned from the consequences of oppression and the atrocities that were being inflicted upon Eritrean people."

Tahaguas spent the next seven years living as an unaccompanied minor in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, sharing a tent with eight other girls. Just when she had finally been reunited with her brother, she was told that she would not be able to take him with her when she emigrated to the U.S. He is currently alone in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. On Jan. 31, the Trump administration expanded its notorious Muslim ban to suspend permanent immigration visas for citizens of Nigeria, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar (Burma), and Tahaguas' native Eritrea.

"I have been trying to bring my brother to safety here in America. I [heard] last Friday they had just put a bar on my people. My people need your help. ... My little brother needs your help. Please don't forget it."

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