Three Muslim women stood under a pavilion at a church in their hijabs, with their families, huge smiles and a desire to help refugees.
The First Congregational United Church of Christ in Ocala hosted “Stand with Refugees” on Saturday. The event intended to bring their congregation and the community in Florida closer to refugees.
The organizer, Teddy Laury, invited representatives from several Indivisible groups, the Islamic Center and Radiant Hands in Tampa. Members of First Congregational UCC, Muslim families and other community members attended along with the representatives.
Laury, who wore a shirt with the Statue of Liberty next to a woman in hijab with her hand raised and the phrase “All are Welcome,” said she was compelled to host this event because of all the refugees in Florida who need assistance from the communities they are coming to.
Laury wants to provide that assistance both physically through donations to refugee centers and emotionally by preparing the community to experience people unlike them in appearance or religion but similar in their humanity and their desire to help others.
“We’re really trying to reduce Islamophobia and build our community,” Laury said. The First Congregational UCC is doing this by promoting the intermingling of all people regardless of religion and encouraging them to have conversations, ask questions, and form friendships.
About 45 people gathered at the event for a potluck lunch. The congregation also gathered hygiene items and bedding for the Refugee Resettlement Center in Tampa by encouraging those coming to the event to bring donations.
“When you’re helping those in need, it brings everyone together,” said Magda Elkadi Saleh, the president of Radiant Hands.
According to data from the Department of Children and Families, over 3,000 refugees resettled in Florida in 2015-2016. The state was unsure whether there would be funding to help refugees once they arrived, but organizations such as Radiant Hands have been able to serve the refugees in Central Florida.
Saleh said that the organization has been able to serve more than 300 families comprising more than 1,100 individuals struggling after arriving in Florida.
When refugees arrive in the state, they are given $1,000 and support from Radiant Hands including $120 monthly to help with rent. Their goal is to have the families be self-sufficient within 12 months.
Radiant Hands, which is based out of Tampa and has an office in Gainesville, helps refugees by having them attend courses, which teach English, help them get drivers licenses and encourage them to get jobs. As long as the refugees are working to establish themselves, Radiant Hands assists them financially.
“We don’t expect our job to get smaller,” Saleh said. “But the struggle is worth it.”
Although no refugees were present at the event, Saleh shared some anecdotes from her experiences.
Saleh said that many refugees choose to leave their homes because of illness, such as a man who arrived with a brain tumor and stayed in the hospital for six months and died last month. His widow and children are now being cared for by Saleh and her team in Tampa.
Saleh also shared the story of a friend whose parents refused to leave Syria for 25 years. When they showed up in Tampa she asked what happened and they replied “when my front door was in my living room I decided it was time to come.” Saleh said that is why many people leave Syria — when bombs devastate their homes and businesses they have nothing else there.
Delphine Herbert represented the Friday Forum of Marion County at the event. She gave the statistics that since WWII there has been the largest migration in human history and that every 100 people in the world will be displaced in their lifetime.
“This is reality,” Herbert said, “Reality that the United States is not assuming sufficient responsibility for.”
Several representatives at the event came from Indivisible groups. Indivisible was started by former congressional members of the Obama administration.
Jill Carel, the representative for Indivisible Common Centers Ocala and Indivisible Ocala Concerned Citizens, said the group is meant to fight for the rights and freedoms of all people.
“My goal is to start with a human being, face to face and hand to hand, and heal together,” Carel said. “We need to remember our common humanity.”
LaVonda McCandless from Marion County and Stone Creek Indivisible groups added that Indivisible does not take stands but encourages individuals to take stands. McCandless also mentioned that most people in the United States were once immigrants who were not accepted by the established society.
“It wasn’t that many generations ago that my mother’s family came from Ireland,” McCandless said, “People didn’t want the Irish here and now St. Patrick’s day is basically a national holiday. People assimilate, that’s what it’s all about.”
Harold McSwain, pastor at First Congregational UCC, said that the United Church of Christ denomination is open and affirming, meaning that they welcome all people, including women, people of various races, sexual orientations and occupations.
“It would be incongruous if we were not to welcome these [refugees],” McSwain said.