The Rev. Susan Verbrugge planned to spend the latter part of this week helping a family of Syrian refugees get settled in Blacksburg.
But President Donald Trump’s executive order, which bans citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, has the pastor and other members of the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership wondering if that day will come to pass.
“At this point we’re waiting to hear ... if they can even leave their country,” said Verbrugge, pastor of the Glade Church in Blacksburg. “We were really hoping they would be able to get here before Trump signed the ban.”
Verbrugge said the family — a mother, father and five children — was scheduled to arrive Thursday but now would remain in Jordan until further notice.
At least one other local family has been directly affected by the travel ban. Jennifer Dean, a Roanoke immigration law attorney, said the order has stalled her Iraqi refugee client’s efforts to bring his two teenage sons to the U.S.
As a whole, the immigrant and refugee community is on edge following the executive order, unclear of what might happen next, said Russ Merritt, the executive director of Blue Ridge Literacy, a nonprofit that provides classes to non-native English speakers.
“After the election, people wondered what would happen,” Merritt said. “Since the executive orders over the weekend, now we see.”
In Roanoke, where more than 800 refugees have settled in the past five years, supportive allies came together to make plans to show immigrants they are welcome. In Blacksburg, about 200 people gathered on Henderson Lawn to protest both the travel ban and a proposed Southern border wall. In Richmond, Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, Virginia’s only Muslim legislator, spoke out against the travel ban from the House floor.
At a separate evening rally in front of the Supreme Court, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., joined others calling for a reversal of the order. Kaine was in Roanoke Monday to talk about the Affordable Care Act, but at his first stop with Carilion Clinic leadership, he heard instead concerns about the travel ban. Three physician residents and 16 other Carilion employees have green cards or visas that might be restricted under the executive order, spokesman Chris Turnbull said.
Kaine said he learned of the Syrian family’s anticipated arrival during a weekend visit to Blacksburg.
“Vetting should be intense,” he said, but he added that the process was already rigorous for the family, which fled their war-torn country in 2013 and has been living in a refugee camp for four years awaiting admittance to the U.S.
If relocated, they would be the second family of Syrian refugees the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership has helped move to the New River Valley in the past four months.
Founded in July with the sole purpose of helping people from Syria, the group includes people from a variety of faiths and some who don’t claim a faith at all, Verbrugge said. She said the size of the group is hard to pin down, but they have more than 400 people on their listserv.
In October, the partnership worked with Commonwealth Catholic Charities to successfully welcome its first Syrian family — a mother, father and six children ranging in age from 9 months to early teens. The family had spent more than five years on the move, including time in a refugee camp in Lebanon.
Once the family landed in the New River Valley, the Blacksburg group moved them into a home and has helped them adjust. Verbrugge said the family’s transition was going “really well.” The children are enrolled in school and taking English as a Second Language classes, and the father recently received a pay raise at the job that the group helped him obtain.
She declined to give other details about the family in hopes of protecting them from backlash, but she did say the mother was especially excited about helping the new Syrian family adjust to life in Blacksburg.
For now, at least, her excitement and that of the group has been stymied.
“We would like people to know how incredibly heartbroken we are by this ban,” Verbrugge said.
“To say to people that are so traumatized and that live in fear every single day, to say to them that you’re not welcome here, just makes us ill,” she said.
Dean said she briefed her client on the expected delays in his sons’ case Monday afternoon.
The man came to Roanoke as a refugee in 2014 and is now a permanent resident, according to Dean. His sons, 14 and 18, are in the process of obtaining their own visas so they can join him as permanent residents. But because Iraq is one of seven nations affected by Trump’s executive order, their arrival will certainly at least be delayed, she said.
Both families’ situations were shared with an overflow crowd of about 100 who gathered at the Roanoke City Market Building at lunchtime Monday to strategize about ways to make immigrants and refugees living in the Roanoke Valley feel more welcome.
Megan Carter and Kelsey Harrington began organizing the event on Thursday, a day before Trump signed the executive order. They didn’t anticipate the order, they said. They just wanted to start a conversation and develop actions to make immigrants and refugees feel welcome in Roanoke when national events are making them uneasy.
“Donald Trump would not have won if people were not afraid,” said Carter, 26. “You’re so much less afraid of your neighbors ... if you know them.”
One of those refugees, a 25-year-old student at Virginia Western Community College, told the group how appreciative he was of the way Roanoke welcomed his family.
Kapil Sapkota, his younger brother and his parents lived in United Nations refugee camps for nearly all of the boys’ childhoods. They were forced from their home in Bhutan in the early 1990s. So many experiences were new to them when they landed in Roanoke, he said.
“When I came here, I was lost,” Sapkota said.
He took the U.S. citizenship test last fall. When he takes the oath of allegiance, he will be the first in his family to earn citizenship.
Sapkota expects to graduate from Virginia Western with an associate degree next year and would like to study engineering at Virginia Tech.
“We chose this country because it is the land of opportunity,” he said, and he asked those gathered to continue to show kindness to immigrants and refugees.
The group came up with a list of ways to demonstrate their openness: clothing and food drives, a Valentine’s Day card-making activity, playgroups, “know your rights” talks, potluck dinners, supporting immigrant-owned businesses and making the effort to learn simple phrases in Arabic and Farsi.
Harrington and Carter kept the meeting focused on the “interpersonal level.” Discussions of policy and politics were generally eschewed in favor of events and gestures intended to create a welcoming environment.
Several at the meeting said it was important to speak up to elected officials on issues ranging from the travel ban to whether the Roanoke City Council should formally adopt a status of “sanctuary city.”
Kathy Stockburger, a former Roanoke School Board chairwoman, urged the group to work with the school system to aid immigrant and refugee children.
The school district doesn’t ask students or their families for their immigration status, but Hayley Poland, the director of school counseling, said teachers and counselors are prepared to help students who have concerns about what is happening. Roanoke’s student body includes students who speak more than 50 languages.
Poland said she hadn’t heard of students asking about the travel ban. But for several months, some students have raised more general concerns about how their families could be affected.
At the collegiate level, most area colleges except for Virginia Tech said they don’t have students or faculty who are directly affected by the travel ban. More than 100 Tech students may be affected, Tech President Timothy Sands wrote in an open letter Sunday night.
Radford University President Brian Hemphill on Monday noted in a public letter of his own that while Radford currently has no students directly affected by the ban it will continue to monitor the situation and will work with anyone who has concerns.
Tech employees spent Monday afternoon checking on overseas students, and the communications team launched a website for regular updates.
Spokesman Mark Owczarski said it’s still not clear how many people with ties to the university will be affected. Tech doesn’t have organized study-abroad groups in the seven designated countries right now, though he said some students or faculty could be working on their own research projects there.
“It’s a very fluid process and we’re doing the best that we can to monitor and support our students, 3,500 international students,” he said. “They bring perspective, knowledge, information that is essential to us as a global land-grant university addressing global issues. We need that engagement. They are part of our community and we’re going to stand to support them.”
Staff writers Jacob Demmitt and Luanne Rife contributed to this report.