Hundreds attend vigil for refugees at Austin church

Hundreds of people packed the First English Lutheran Church in Austin on Monday evening as part of an interfaith vigil in support of refugees.

Syrian refugee family Abdul Ghani (left), his wife Sana Alaama (second from right) and their daughters, Laila Alaama (second from left) and Sama Alaama, attend a vigil at the First English Lutheran Church in Austin on Jan. 30, 2017.

Ten-year-old Laila Alaama sometimes cries when she thinks about her home country of Syria.

"It’s all war now," she said Monday night. "It’s all blood. It’s hell."

Laila and her family, who arrived in the United States this month, were part of an interfaith vigil at First English Lutheran Church in Austin in support of refugees as turmoil continues nationwide around President Donald Trump's controversial executive order halting refugee admissions into the country.

Laila’s father, Abdel Ghani, told the packed church that he lost his factory, which made plastic bags and provided printing services in Damascus, in an explosion in September 2011. In June 2012, Ghani said he and his family relocated to Malaysia for four-and-a-half years but that government did not assist them and that it was difficult to find employment and education for his two daughters.

People pack the First English Lutheran Church in Austin for a vigil for refugees on Jan. 30, 2017.Shelby Knowles for The Texas Tribune

Monday's ceremony began with a prayer and moment of silence for refugees, after which representatives from refugee organizations and faith leaders spoke to the audience about Trump’s executive action.

The Rev. Michael Coffey from the First English Lutheran Church said Christianity informs his concern about refugees.

“Caring for the most vulnerable people in the world, of which refugees certainly are, is an essential part of how Christians show love in God’s world,” Coffey said.

He told the attendees that two candles — one green and one red, to symbolize the colors of Syria's flag — have been burning since December at the church to mark a prayer for those in the war-torn country.

Jo Catherine Quinn, executive director of Caritas of Austin, spoke about Texas’ legacy of welcoming refugees. 

“We can ensure the security of the homeland and welcome refugees, too,” Quinn said. “This executive order is only an illusion of strength. In reality, it makes us appear weak. We are strongest when we are open and welcoming.”

Related Tribune coverage:

  • President Trump’s executive order restricting travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries and halting refugee admissions left many refugee resettlement agencies wondering what was left of their mission. But they were undeterred.