Columbus affirms its commitment to immigrants as the national debate drives uncertainty among some refugees

In the immediate aftermath of President Trump's late-January executive order restricting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, protests sprang up at airports nationwide, including John Glenn Columbus International Airport.

“I was inspired to march because the Muslim ban is un-American, and anti-humanity,” said Laddan Shoar, who was among the protesters. “I would have been out there regardless, but I also happen to be a first-generation Iranian-American. The mood was simultaneously urgent, assertive, vigilant and welcoming. … It was a proud moment for me, as a Columbus resident, to be among so many people turning out to stand up for refugees, immigrants and the Muslim community.”

In the days that followed, Mayor Andrew Ginther and City Council President Zach Klein affirmed the city's commitment to accepting refugees, regardless of immigration status.

“Our immigrant population is part of the fabric of what makes Columbus so vibrant,” Ginther said in a press statement. “They are our neighbors. We must not turn our backs on them, now or ever.”

Ginther went on to issue an executive order stating that Columbus would “not use city offices of employees to detain people based solely on their immigration status,” in addition to noting immigrants would continue to have access to the same city services offered all residents.

Regardless, one Iraqi refugee who immigrated to Columbus in October 2016 said his optimism for the future has been somewhat tempered, replaced with a growing concern as he observes the tone of the current national debate and an immigration policy that remains wildly in flux. (Most recently, a federal judge in Washington state issued a temporary block on Trump's travel ban, setting up a showdown in a federal appeals court.)

“All the time, I was trying to be positive. Even after the election it was, ‘It's fine. Even if there's change, maybe it will be better change.' But during the last two weeks … I'm not sure,” said Mohammed, who requested his last name not be used to protect his identity. “We are legal here, but we need to get the green card at the end of this year. We may have problems with our residency later.”

Mohammed's current unease is manageable compared with the day-to-day uncertainty he lived with in Baghdad. He described a country where horrific violence became commonplace— “A bomb happens here, and then after one hour you see people there hanging out like there was nothing that happened,” he said — as militias and terrorist groups waged constant war in an effort to fill the power vacuum.

For Mohammed, these daily fears were exacerbated by his status as a gay man living in a country where being outwardly LGBTQ can be akin to a death sentence.

“You're not protected if you're gay; you can be killed easily,” Mohammed said. “You can be hurt even by your family if they wanted to and they know. You have to [live in secret]. If you don't do that, you lose everything. You have to pretend.”

Mohammed left Iraq in May 2015 and spent a year-and-a-half in Turkey as he and his partner worked through the lengthy refugee process, which consisted of myriad interviews and multiple background, medical and security checks. “I think some people, they don't know about refugees, especially at this time. Iraqi refugee or Syrian refugees, they have to go through this long procedure [to be approved for refugee status],” Mohammed said.

Though somewhat disheartened by much of the tone emanating from the current national conversation on immigration, Mohammed said there's still been an overwhelming sense of support within the local community. “People are telling us, ‘We are sorry this is happening,'” he said.

It's a point echoed by Shoar, who expressed the urgent need for “our citizens to be visible, loud and to show our solidarity in numbers.”

“It is time to come together and stand up for the principles that have made America become a great place to live,” she said, “and to protect those who arrive here seeking refuge or opportunity.”