by Zac Johnson ’22, work study student for the DHRC@FHI

Left to right: Mona Hassan, Imam Omar Suleiman, Emily Stewart

Well over 150 students and community members filed into White Lecture Hall on Monday, September 23rd to hear Muslim advocate, professor, and leader, Imam Omar Suleiman speak on “Human Rights, Faith, and the Border”. His talk focused on the injustices at the southern U.S. border with Mexico and similar crises around the world, such as the migration crisis at the Syrian-Jordinian border. Prof. Mona Hassan opened the talk by explaining the origin of The Annual Human Rights Lecture, which was established in 2018 to discuss current human rights research and encourage student, community, and faculty engagement with modern human rights conversations.

Imam Suleiman began his talk with a short prayer. He prayed that we are unified, that we can move on from grieving, and that we can mobilize into action. He explained his first experiences with immigration and borders through his family history. His parents were refugees from Palestine living in New Orleans, yet despite their closeness, he struggled to connect with what that transition meant for them. Soon, though, he began to observe the power of his family’s Islamic faith in creating solidarity and hope, and encouraging the help of others fleeing tragedy or violence. He recounted a time when he came home from school, only to find that their car was gone, given away by his parents to local refugees of Somalia who had no means of transportation. He even told of a time when his parents offered up their home to nine Bosnian refugees. Despite having no say in the situation, Imam Suleiman seemed to look back on it as humbling and connecting. He brought up this theme of connecting with others time and time again throughout the rest of his talk. He then  explained his connection between Islam and helping others. Many Prophets were refugees of some sort and God’s message championed their human rights. This is widely understood in Islam, as even their calendar is known as the calendar of migration. He talked about the people of Medina, and how during a time of internal crisis and identity confusion they unified around the support of fleeing refugees – their internal problems put on hold to help people in need. 

He then moved towards his first experiences with human rights at the border. His first experience came at the Syrian border with Jordan. During his visit, he met children and women that reminded him of people close to his heart, children around the same age as his own and mothers with similar names to his own, each fleeing massacre. At the end of his trip, he left the groups of tents where the refugees were staying, only to realize just how large the camp truly was. It seemed to expand hundreds and hundreds of tents wide. He was struck with despair, wondering if anything he had done was productive or helpful to those in need. He returned again to his idea of connection with people, an understanding of the humanity of others, something he argues is a powerful force of change. He then transitioned to his work at the U.S. border with Mexico. He highlighted the human rights violations present today in our detention centers which place detainees, even legal refugees and citizens, in hot warehouses without clean water or food, access to health care, or legal resources, but goes on to explain that these policies have been around for years, especially under former President Obama. He explained that for years the U.S. government has militarized the border to terrorize border towns and regulate entry into this country and for years we have separated families, sometimes shipping children back to their countries of origin on commercial flights.

He made clear, however, that, “if you have a license, you are older than ICE” and that immigration policies took on a new level of intensity under President Bush. In Texas, he was protesting outside a detention center when a bus pulled in. His crowd surrounded the bus, unsure of what to do, but confident they wanted to prevent these people from being locked away. Upon looking through the tinted windows, he realized it was a bus full of children, some crying, some blankly staring. He placed his hand on the window of the bus and began to pray. One by one the kids approached the window and placed their hands against his, yet he couldn’t even hear their cries. The image he painted was painful. Visiting the Tornillo migrant juvenile detention center in Southern Texas, he was prohibited from doing much with the kids. The one thing he could do was pray for them. Maybe it was the bread he held or the fact that many of them had never interracted with a Muslim man, but most of the chidren mistook him for a priest. Despite this, they took his help seriously, with each and every child asking for Imam to pray for their own mothers. 

Imam Suleiman then directed the audience’s attention towards the images projected on the screen. He had a series of slides with two pictures side by side. The left side featured images relating to the migrant crisis in Syria and the right featured those relating to the migrant crisis at our Southern border. They were almost indistinguishable. He flashed a pair of images for us. The left  side featured a young Syrian child, Alan Kurdi, who washed up on the shore of a resort. The right featured a father and daughter, Óscar and Valeria Ramírez, still wrapped in each other’s arms, who washed up on the shore of the Rio Grande trying to cross the border. All three of them were lifelessly pressed into the sand, still soaked from the moving water. The audience was still as he pointed out the similarities between these crises and his concern for an America that he views as imploding. 

As he began to close, Imam Suleiman moved onto addressing these problems. He talked about charity, arguing that it can be wonderful, but only when paired with active, productive policy reform. He talked about the ways in which local churches and organizations are organizing around the border. He chuckled as he described a siutation in which Jewish and Muslim groups competed over who could provide different meals to the people being held in our detention centers, demonstrating the sheer power unifying around crisis can have on a community. He discussed the importance of foreign policy in shaping our domestic policy – that in seeking global dominance economically and militarily we have caused a myriad of problems which encourage and force migration. The U.S. Government has responded with the creation of ICE in the past two decades, which he calls to abolish on the grounds of creating a false narrative about the threat of migration to this country.  He closed by emphasizing the power of connecting to the humanity of another person. He argued migrants have been productive citizens (“and I use that word intentionally”) and that dehumanizing those who migrate to this country is dehumanizing to ourselves as well. Before he opened the floor for question time, he stated that many groups organizing around our border crisis have possible solutions and have an ethical framework for addressing migration in this country. He encouraged us to get started working in our own communities by inviting people to shout out local organizations.