Austin synagogue answers anti-immigrant hype with Welcome the Stranger

Jan 13, 2018
Nick Wagner
A Turkish national, Diler Bilgen, right, laughs while conversing with Sandy Bootz during a Shabbat meal at Congregation Beth Israel in Austin on Friday. Immigrants shared their stories with over a multicultural meal as part of a symposium tying in the teachings of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with the current controversy over immigration policies and sanctuary cities. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

More than 200 people shared their immigration stories, and the stories of their families, at the Welcoming the Stranger symposium at Congregation Beth Israel on Friday and Saturday — a response to the anti-immigrant political climate since the 2016 elections.

“It’s important work of sitting together, connecting, talking, breaking down barriers and building relationships that are stronger than what the political rhetoric might suggest of who we are as Americans,” Rabbi Rebecca Epstein said.

Participants included members of the congregation, the Refugee Services of Texas and the Raindrop Turkish House.

Sedrick Ntwali, 27, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ahmed Kadhim, 30, from Iraq, met during the Shabbat dinner.

They spoke about why they left their countries. For Ntwali, it was war. Kadhim was in search of asylum. And they talked about work.

Ntwali works with a resettlement agency and has tried to help Iraqis get work in the Austin area. They may have been doctors or engineers in their home country, but here the Iraqis often have to settle for entry-level work — a difficult choice for them, Ntwali said. But eventually the immigrants take what they can get.

As for Kadhim, he has noticed that Iraqi immigrants in the United States are more open to other cultures and has been surprised at how well they get along.

Rabbi David Segal, a Texas organizer at the Religious Action Center in Houston, led the Shabbat service after the dinner. He spoke about the role the Jewish community plays in fighting for the rights of immigrants.

“We cannot fulfill the command to love without the power to act,” he said. “The moment demands that we become more powerful by joining together across allies, across lines of difference — faith, race, class, national origin, political party — to enact a shared vision of a more compassionate, more just community and state.”

In an interview, Segal said he believes our differences can make us thrive. “I do believe people want to live together, know their neighbors. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing,” he said.

Community representatives such as Austin Mayor Steve Adler attended the symposium.

Juan Belman was among the speakers who shared their stories. Belman is a participant in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows immigrants brought to the country as children but lacking authorization to stay to work and study in the United States.

In 2014, Belman and his brother got national media attention when they interrupted then-President Barack Obama’s speech in Austin. The brothers called for an end to the increasing number of deportations and for some type of extension that would protect their immigrant parents, similar to how DACA had protected them. Most recently, Belman was one of three people recognized by American Gateways because of his work with the immigrant community in Central Texas.

Currently, he said, the goal is to focus on pressuring lawmakers to pass a DREAM Act and grant protection to DACA recipients.

“I’m not afraid to encounter immigration (officials), because I have a big, strong, supportive community network,” Belman said to a group of about 30 during a breakout session Saturday.

A floor below Belman, Sulma Franco, an LGBT activist from Guatemala, called for religious congregations to stand in solidarity with immigrants and to open their doors and help. Sulma was the first immigrant to take sanctuary in Austin’s First Unitarian Universalist Church, staying there for nearly three months.

“Sanctuary is the last option we have when our lawyers can do nothing more,” she said in Spanish.