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SALT LAKE CITY — It meant his 7-year-old daughter would be up late Saturday night, but Mormon dad Brian Hill saw a teaching moment for little Eden when officials detained 18 refugees at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on orders from President Donald Trump.
He bundled her up, and they headed to the airport. Another child at the protest held a sign: “It’s past my bedtime, but this is too important.” Soon after they arrived, amid the chants and cheers, Eden turned to Hill and rewarded him with a question: “Dad, what’s a democracy?”
“When you are as familiar with an issue as we have been with refugee placement in the United States, and you see gross, misinformed decisions made, you need to take action immediately,” said Hill, 32, the owner of a company that provides education inside jails and prisons. “We wanted to send the message this is not what American stands for.”
At the same time, another Mormon man texted his friends, who celebrated the president’s decision to ban refugees from entering the country for four months while the Trump administration reviews the vetting process.
“Almost everybody I know supports these executive orders 100 percent,” said Don Peay, a business consultant from Bountiful, Utah, who founded Trump for President Utah. “The president’s first obligation is to support the country. He’s taking bold action to fulfill his Constitutional obligation.”
Perhaps the most divisive act of the first full week of the Trump presidency revealed a diversity of opinions within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about safety and refugee resettlement. On one side are Mormons like Peay who expressed confidence in a president who followed through on campaign promises to secure American borders. On the other are LDS Church members whose hearts broke for refugees forced from their home countries but stopped from entering the United States.
And there are those who seek a safe border, but are not happy with such a unilateral decision.
The range of Mormon reaction mirrored the nation’s. It included a triumphant Utah man whose uncle was killed by an undocumented immigrant. One concerned woman had chanted “Death to America” in elementary school before her family was welcomed into the United States, joined the LDS Church and she grew up to be a BYU law professor. Others working in European camps reported that refugees were disheartened by Trump’s edict whether theirs was on the president’s list of seven specifically restricted countries or not.
All passionately defended their positions as vital.
Meanwhile, the church isn’t budging from its vast, international support for refugees in the United States or abroad, at either the institutional or grassroots levels.
Just 15 months ago, little Eden Hill went to O’Hare Airport with her mom and their LDS friends as part of a greeting party. They wore big smiles and held bright signs. Other Mormons might have guessed this was a group welcoming home a missionary.
Months earlier, Eden’s mother Callie Hill was overwhelmed by the refugee crisis. Today, 65 million men, women and children have been forced from their homes, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Callie told Brian she wanted to help. The next morning, he talked with a Chicago-area refugee resettlement agency. Suddenly, the Evanston, Illinois, family was sponsoring a family from Africa. Callie collected furniture, bedding, clothes and groceries. Her friend Mary Maroon helped, along with others in their North Shore First Ward LDS congregation and in their social media networks.
“I was seeing pictures of families desperate to get to safety,” Maroon said, “or children washing up on shores and people stuck in train stations. I’m the mother of four young children. I pictured a woman stuck somewhere with little children desperate for safety and I thought, ‘She’s me. She’s every bit as desperate as I would be.’ “
They stocked the apartment provided by the resettlement agency. Then they went to the airport. The families threw open their arms to a refugee woman named Ramatoulaye Camara and her twin 2-year-old boys. A Muslim from Mali, Camara watched terrorists shoot and kill her husband right in front of her. She escaped to Turkey, where she spent two years raising infants into toddlers.
The Mormon greeting party didn’t cheer up Camara. She was exhausted and overwhelmed. Hill said she couldn’t even manage a smile. “These are real people who have been through so much,” Hill said.
Today, Hill, Maroon and Camara are fast friends.
“I’m deeply saddened by the executive order because I think it removes hope from people who have little hope,” Marron said. “I think it’s a tragedy. Our country has a history as a safe harbor for those seeking a better life. We’ve abandoned that, and I think it’s a shame.”
It’s emotionally difficult for Cory Green, a 40-year-old security consultant, but he still drives up Gentile Street in Layton, Utah, nearly every day. In 2000, his uncle died from injuries sustained on Gentile Street when a teenaged undocumented immigrant struck his car while fleeing from police in a stolen truck.
“We got a knock on our door during Sunday dinner,” said Green, a former solider and Navy military policeman. “The officer informed my dad his brother’s car had flipped when it was hit.”
The teenager is up for parole next year. Green said Monday he intended to go to the hearing.
A member of the LDS Trailside Ward in Syracuse, Utah, who served a Mormon mission on the Arizona-Mexico border and witnessed illegal border crossings, Green felt validated last week when Trump signed executive orders to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico and to suspend any immigration for three months from seven predominantly Muslim countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
“I was absolutely ecstatic and thrilled. This is many decades too late, but better late than never. I’ve been negatively impacted by porous borders. My family has. My family was among those who didn’t have their voices heard until Donald Trump came along. As a member of the church, I’d like to do what we can to keep Americans safe, especially after what happened to my uncle.”
Help at home
Green and Peay, who served a Spanish-speaking LDS mission in Australia, said they understand the need to help refugees. However, they prefer overseas solutions to help refugees return home.
“We need a long-term solution to the issue,” Peay said. “That’s what bold, courageous leaders do. People are so excited we have a politician who is doing what he said he would on the campaign trail.”
Peay draws a parallel between the president’s orders and LDS church counsel that Latter-day Saints should blossom where they are planted rather than move to the United States, as most international Mormons did in the 1800s and early 1900s. When the LDS Church launched the faith’s “I Was a Stranger” initiative it asked Mormons to help refugees at the grassroots level where they live.
“We can show compassion for these people where they are,” Peay said.
“I’m all for helping refugees,” Green added. “However, with everything going on right now and knowing how radical Islamists think from my military experience, I understand why Donald Trump is being extremely cautious. I don’t want any other family to go through this again, whether it’s at the hands of an illegal alien or a lone wolf with ties to ISIS or another terrorist group.”
Both men are as frustrated by those who say the orders are anti-Muslim as the president is. A group on Monday announced a Mormons March for Muslims event on Feb. 4, to coincide with a Utah March for Refugees. Trump rejected the Twitter hashtag favored by critics of the orders — #muslimban.
“To be clear,” the president said Sunday in a Facebook statement, “this is not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting. This is not about religion — this is about terror and keeping our country safe.”
Lisa Campbell and Hayley Smith work in refugee camps in Greece. They said the crisis is worsening, forcing refugees to sleep in the streets of Athens. Hypothermia is killing some and families are being broken up and resettled in different countries.
They worried that refugee resettlement is becoming politicized and believed that U.S. immigration screening or vetting was stringent enough.
“I’ve spoken in Arabic to several Syrian and Iraqi families who finally made it to the United States,” Smith said, “and the ups and downs of the vetting process was enough to unhinge the strongest of people. Years of interviews and waiting, more interviews and more waiting.”
Analysis by the Wall Street Journal provided some evidence. Of the 180 people who have carried out or plotted U.S. terrorist attacks on or since Sept. 11, 2001, 11 are from the seven countries on the president’s restricted list. None of those 11 were involved in the deaths of Americans.
Smith said, and the Journal confirmed, that other countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt were larger sources of terror.
Campbell is the manager of a camp in Oinofyta, Greece, with 600 refugees. Most are from Afghanistan. Despite that country’s absence from the president’s list, Campbell said the refugees worried other nations will follow the U.S. example.
“They don’t understand why people who are searching for a way to get away from bombs, to get away from war, to get away from persecution are being stopped dead in their tracks,” said Campbell, vice president of Do Your Part. “We’re floored, and for the refugees themselves, this is another shot to their hope for stability and peace in their lives. It’s hard enough already, but the loss of hope is one of the hardest things for them to face. Losing clothes, losing things, losing a house is difficult, but nothing is worse than losing hope. It’s almost paralyzing, to be honest with you.
“It’s inhumane and definitely not the example the United States should be setting.”
LDS Church leaders issued a statement on Saturday night, responding to media requests for comment on Trump’s executive orders. They expressed “special concern for those who are fleeing physical violence, war and religious persecution” and urged all people and all governments to seek “the best solutions to meet human needs and relieve suffering.”
The faith’s position on helping refugees has not shifted, multiple church sources said. Church leaders remain committed to supplying aid to refugees around the world through LDS Charities.
As an institution, the church has provided millions of dollars to assist refugees overseas through partnerships with global relief organizations, such as the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, Catholic Relief Services, and the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund.
Last fall the church gave $5 million to nine U.S. resettlement agencies.
Church leaders also have not deviated from encouraging church members to engage in the “I Was a Stranger” initiative announced in March 2016, said the sources, who were not authorized to speak on behalf of the church. Church members continued to express support for the program via Twitter, visible in a feed at lds.org/refugees, using the hashtag #iwasastranger.
Every morning and every evening, Mehrsa Baradaran chanted “Death to America” with her Iranian elementary school classmates. In 1986, U.S. immigration officials trusted her family and allowed them to immigrate, she said in a post on Slate.com. The LDS Church also accepted them, and Baradaran took her oath of U.S. citizenship while wearing a Mormon missionary badge. Today the mother of three is a member of the Athens First Ward and a law professor at the University of Georgia.
“I hope the church can still be that moral compass for America,” Baradaran said.
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