“Members of the press are invited to join Congressman Marc Veasey, TX-33, and Bothina Matar, a Syrian refugee who resettled in the Dallas area with her family in 2015, as they share their thoughts on President Trump’s restrictive immigration policies and detail the positive contributions refugees make in their adopted homes.” Thus read a press release issued by the office of Congressman Veasey in late February.
The congressman’s office reached out to Bothina, who has been working at GAIA since 2016, and her husband on the recommendation of the International Rescue Committee after President Trump issued an executive order in late January reducing the number of refugees to be admitted into the United States in 2017 to 50,000; suspending the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days; and indefinitely suspending the entry of refugees and others from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.
The press release went on to quote Congressman Veasey, stating: “It is beyond shameful that Republican elected officials and our president want to slam the door on refugees escaping violence. We can maintain America’s humanitarian leadership while keeping our nation safe, and Tamam and Bothina’s story highlights the positive result when we uphold both these ideals. Refugees like Tamam and Bothina are examples of the hope and contributions immigrants bring to their new homes.”
We, of course, couldn’t agree more.
Bothina says the decision to work with Congressman Veasey and speak to the press on behalf of Syrian refugees was not an easy one. She says she worried that she might say something that could be wrongly interpreted, and it took her a while to decide to say yes to his request. But her family was encouraging — they all thought it was a no-brainer — and so she accepted the challenge on behalf of Syrian refugees and her country. “I realized that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Bothina says. “I really felt I needed to go and show people who we are.”
To prepare for her trip to Washington, D.C., where she would not only speak at a press conference, but also attend President Trump’s first speech to a joint session of Congress, Bothina spent evenings doing research and writing her comments.
“I wanted to be sure that when I spoke I was articulate and succinct. I wanted to be able to back up my comments with statistics,” Bothina says. “I wanted to talk about the refugees who have come to the U.S., specifically the people whom I know and how they are working and raising their children. I wanted to point out that none of them are criminals and they don't want to cause any harm to America.”
Bothina’s husband, Tamam, accompanied her to Washington. Our founder, Paula, along with Lauren J. and Alyssa, also went along to provide moral support as Bothina put a human face to the resettled refugee experience in America. “I cannot think of a better person for the job,” Paula says.
The day and a half that Bothina spent in Washington was action packed. After dropping their bags at their hotel, she and Tamam went to lunch with the other ladies from GAIA. There she rehearsed what she would say during the press conference. “They were really supportive and helpful,” Bothina says. After the press conference, there was time for Bothina to change clothes before doing a television interview and attending a guest reception that preceded the joint session.
At the reception, Bothina says there were four or five other women wearing headscarves, and she met an Iraqi refugee whose father had been prohibited from coming to live with him. She also met House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The reception was exciting for Bothina. The joint session that followed was tough.
Bothina says she wasn’t seated close to any of the women she’d met at the reception and instead was surrounded by people who supported the president’s refugee ban — save for one man. Sitting quietly while others cheered each time the president spoke about fighting “radical Islamic terrorism” was extremely uncomfortable, Bothina says. “It seemed like there was no compassion, no consideration for those who were seated near them. I was crying on the inside,” she says. “I wanted to scream.”
The joint session lasted about 90 minutes, which was a long time to sit in what felt like a hostile environment. Bothina managed though, and at the end of a day that had begun at 4 a.m., she joined her husband at their hotel.
The next day, before heading back to Texas, she and Tamam met with a staffer from Kentucky Representative Harold Rogers’s office and then went to the office of Texas Senator John Cornyn. Rogers’s staffer was well-versed in Middle Eastern politics and the existing refugee crisis. He was curious and engaged, Bothina says, but the visit with two women who worked for Senator Cornyn was disappointing.
“I wanted to emphasize that four months is a very long time for someone living in a refugee camp. I wanted to share with them that the situation was so dire, I thought about leaving the children with Tamam and attempting to go to Turkey on my own, risking my life to enter Europe illegally. I didn’t know what else I could do for my family, but they weren’t interested in knowing anything about that.”
Still, says Bothina, despite the challenges the experience presented, she would do it all again if asked. “If it’s going to help, I am going to do it again. I will do it as long as I feel it’s going to help.”