About 100 people, mostly members of the IPFW community, rallied Wednesday to support Syrian refugees and protest Gov. Mike Pence’s ban on allowing them to resettle in the state.
Gathering in front of the university’s Neff Hall in a cold drizzle, demonstrators carried signs reading "We Will NOT Turn Our Backs" and "#Welcome Refugees IPFW." More than a dozen spoke at an open microphone that allowed those present, including two students whose parents were refugees, to express themselves.
Tony Tran of Fort Wayne, an IPFW senior studying animation, said his parents came to Fort Wayne as refugees from the Vietnam War with the help of agencies affiliated with the Lutheran church and Catholic Charities.
"It gave them an opportunity to settle down and have a life here," the 24-year-old said, noting he would be the first in his family to graduate from college.
"We in the United States say we’re the land of the free, but if we’re closing off the borders, we’re not. We’re keeping people out."
Terry Dougherty, a retired IPFW staff member who has worked with Afghan refugee families, said that in his experience, refugees flee tragic situations and come here "for a chance."
His experience, he said, has been that "every one of them, every man, woman and child, is grateful" for resettlement.
"I would suggest we all push back, stand up, sign petitions, write letters, to change the attitudes of our government and everyone after the French violence," he said, referring to anti-refugee sentiments that have come to the fore after bombings and shootings of civilians in Paris on Nov. 13 were blamed on terrorists who posed as refugees.
The attacks were linked to people inspired by the self-styled Islamic State. A Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the attackers, suggesting he was a refugee, but the document later was found to be a fake and came from a dead Syrian loyalist solider, according to the Washington Post.
Dougherty said he was representing the Fort Wayne-based Indiana Center for Middle East Peace, which has given direct aid to fleeing refugees in Europe and is developing plans to resettle families here.
He told the group that Pence’s order was challenged this week by a lawsuit filed by two agencies that work with refugees – Catholic Charities and Exodus International, in Indianapolis.
One of about 30 governors who took similar actions, Pence banned resettling Syrian refugees pending a second look at vetting procedures.
However, Meghan Menchhofer, a Fort Wayne social worker who has worked with refugees coming to the city, said they already undergo "a 13-step process ... of intensive background checks" and the process takes years.
Even though refugees face "significant challenges" in resettlement, including finding employment and affordable housing, "there have been so many cases that have been successful," she said.
"I’ve never had a bad experience with a refugee."
The rally was organized by Nancy Virtue, who teaches French at IPFW; Farah Combs, an IPFW teacher of Arabic; and two students, Elana Merritt and Sarah Bercot. A panel discussion on the refugee crisis took place later Wednesday evening.