AUGUSTA — Despite no specific plans to bring Syrian refugees to Maine, Portland resident Tom Tracy thinks that it is important that they know they’re welcome.

Tracy and more than 100 other people stood together in support of Syrian and other refugees Wednesday afternoon in front of the Blaine House. An ad hoc group of Mainers concerned for the safety and health of people displaced from Syria and other war-torn areas organized the event, according to a news release.

“It is very upsetting to me that we would be turning away refugees,” Tracy said. “We’re a country where most all of us are from somewhere else, and we should be welcoming people.”

Anne D. Burt, of Edgecomb, one of the event’s organizers, said the turnout was great for the day before Thanksgiving and that the issue is one people are thinking about and feeling in their hearts.

“We don’t want to repeat history,” Burt said. “We want to be a country that welcomes people fleeing from oppression and war, and we are coming out and saying we are here and not driven by fear.”

Burt said much of the opposition to helping any refugee arises because people feel threatened. She thinks “there is a real movement to divide us, and that this is the time to come together across all lines and borders to say we are one humanity.”

Throughout the group’s time on State Street, passing vehicles honked and drivers waved in support, though a couple of people voiced displeasure at the signs supporting the refugees. One driver stopped at a light made an analogy likening the Syrian refugees to a bowl of M&Ms. He asked if 10 percent of the M&Ms were poisonous, “would you still put a handful in your mouth?” When a supporter answered back that the refugees were mostly women and children, the man said, “It doesn’t matter, because they wear the (suicide) vests too.”

Nearly a dozen religious leaders representing Jews, Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Quakers, Unitarian Universalists and the United Church of Christ joined the group.

Rabbi Erica Asch, of Temple Beth-El in Augusta, who was joined by her family, held a sign saying Maine Jews support Muslim refugees. She said the subject of Syrian refugees is similar to the historical plight of the Jewish people throughout history.

“Being Jewish and a rabbi, our people had to flee their homes in the past, and many of them came here and sought refuge in America,” Asch said. “I think that we have a special responsibility to welcome people who want to come to this country.”

Augusta’s Charles McGillicuddy attended the event in part because of his experience with refugees. He and his wife sponsored Cambodian refugees in the 1980s.

“I think there was a little bit of fear and resentment at the time, but they didn’t cause any problems,” he said. “They were happy to be here, but they also lost their homeland. I guess there is a concern that some of these (Syrian refugees) are dangerous.”

Last week, Gov. Paul LePage issued a statement about Syrian refugees coming to Maine and said he would “take every lawful measure in my power to prevent it from happening.” A spokeswoman from his office did not return a request for comment on Wednesday’s vigil. Across the country, more than two dozen governors have said they do not want Syrian refugees in their states following the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris by Islamic State terrorists that killed 130 people.

Asch said the group wanted to make it clear that the governor doesn’t speak for all Mainers on this issue.

“As chief executive, the governor speaks for or claims to speak for the people of Maine, and I think it is really important for us to stand up as Mainers to say that (LePage) doesn’t speak for all of us,” Asch said. “We accept all people regardless of their religion. and we cannot give in to fear of people just because of the god they happen to worship.”

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

 


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