Hundreds of students, faculty, staff and community members gathered in the snow outside McCullough Student Center on Feb. 2 to participate in the Rally for Refugees. The rally, organized by the Muslim Student Association (MSA), aimed to protest President Donald J. Trump’s executive order banning immigrants and travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries. Mehek Naqvi ’19 co-president of the MSA, helped to plan the rally.
“The goal of the rally was to raise awareness of the travel ban on campus. It was also meant to serve as a safe space for those students who were personally affected by the travel ban, either directly or indirectly,” Naqvi said. “During times of distress and uncertainty it can oftentimes become difficult to take action, ironically it is during such times that it becomes absolutely necessary to do so. The rally provided an outlet for students at Middlebury to stand in solidarity with one another, and to show the Muslim students on this campus that they were not alone in their fight against discrimination and injustice.”
The rally garnered widespread support from faculty, including those at the Charles P. Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life. Mark Orten, the dean of spiritual and religious life, spoke at the rally and praised the Muslimm Student Association for their efforts to put the event together.
“At the same time that administrators and chaplains in our office were discussing ways to respond to the outrageous executive order, we learned that the leaders of the MSA had a Rally Against the Ban in mind,” Orten said. “Always preferring to support student initiatives, when constructive, and understanding that we might be in for more of a marathon than a sprint on these issues, we committed to support the MSA.”
President of Middlebury Laurie L. Patton also attended and spoke at the rally. “We are all here in solidarity with the Muslim Students Association,” Patton said in her address. “As the MSA knows, and has worked so hard to teach us, and as we should all continue to learn, an educational community is deeply strengthened by the open exchange of ideas … Today we stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters because there are individuals who can no longer participate in that exchange because they are prohibited by policy from entering our country. Education is about dignity and respect, and this ban is about neither.”
In addition to administrators, several students spoke at the rally including Naqvi, MSA Co-President Garda Ramadhito ’19 and Travis Sanderson ’19. Student speakers shared personal narratives alongside calls for action. In his speech, Sanderson spoke directly to his fellow white students in the crowd.
“I wished to call attention to the role that bystanders play. To not act in defense of the persecuted is to perpetuate their persecution,” he said. “Dr. King drew attention to this in calling out the white moderate. In my opinion, the white moderate is still alive and well, calling themself ‘liberal’ while criticizing the methods of resistance employed by the less privileged and doing nothing. As I said in my speech, ‘if you stand on the sidelines, you are in the way. You are guilty.’ That was the core message I hoped to convey.”
The student organizers of the event were happy with how the rally went. “I was surprised by the turnout,” Ramadhito said. “I didn’t expect that many people would come to the rally, especially students who I’d never seen at MSA events. The attendees were very enthusiastic; they chanted together and cheered the speaker with a powerful energy. I’d never seen that level of support towards the Muslim community before and it made me really proud of Middlebury.”
Ramadhito hopes that the rally will inspire students to continue to fight for equal rights for immigrants and refugees. “I hope that students will be energized to take a stand against this illegal executive order and show solidarity with their Muslim friends,” he said. “I hope to see more allies attending MSA events and just reaching out to and learning from their Muslim friends.”
Going forward, Orten hopes to continue to help students in their endeavors to combat the more harmful aspects of the current political climate.
“I, for one, support organic, constructive and hearty responses of student leaders, as well as those of the broader community,” Orten said. “Rallies have an important place in moments of urgency, when oppositional public opinion is critical … Policies of the current executives in this country may continue to threaten and target specific populations of our community, but the resolve of the college and the surrounding town is heartening. Turnout at the rally was evidence of this; both encouraging and inspiring. In times like this I could not be more impressed with our students and the leaders of key organizations impacted by these issues.”
Sanderson also emphasized continued participation by students to advocate for marginalized groups. “Middlebury students are often guilty of thinking Middlebury is a safe haven. But freedom is a constant struggle, and oppression is equally constant for refugees and the less marginalized,” he said. “Two Muslim students were personally targeted on campus with Islamophobia last fall; a swastika was drawn on a Jewish center town door. We are not immune in Middlebury, Vt. to the cult of hatred. And we must actively fight against the oppression of our classmates, even if we don’t experience oppression ourselves.”
To this end, Ramadhito extended an open invitation to all students to attend MSA events, including weekly Halal dinners.
“Hopefully, we will hold more discussions between student groups to maintain the momentum that we got from the rally,” he said. “On Thursday evenings, the MSA holds Halal dinners in Proctor Redfield room and we welcome everyone to join for discussion – or they could just hang out with really cool Muslims.”
The MSA also wants to encourage students to attend the Syria Symposium organized by Go/Refuge on March 3-4. “It will be about the Syrian Civil War and the resulting refugee crisis,” Ramadhito said. “We have an amazing lineup of speakers such as the activist Loubna Mrie whose father was part of the Syrian military in the initial part of the war. It would be a meaningful opportunity to learn about arguably the most important and complex crisis in recent times.”