HALLOWELL — Religious leaders and elected officials gathered Tuesday at the new Iraqi-owned grocery store on Water Street to stand up for immigrants and refugees and speak out against President Donald Trump’s executive order banning the immigration of people from seven majority Muslim countries and Syrian refugees.

“We as a nation are stronger because of our immigrants both yesterday and today,” said Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester. “We owe it to them and to ourselves to stand up against these tragic orders and for the Constitution.”

The rally, held at Mainly Groceries, which opened earlier this month at 128 Water St., was organized by the Capital Area New Mainers Project, an all-volunteer organization that welcomes immigrants and refugees and helps them thrive in central Maine.

“We are an America of freedom and justice for all,” said Chris Myers Asch, a leader of the new Mainers group. “It’s a different America than the president believes in.”

Following several poignant and emotional words from civic leaders, Myers Asch spoke about his father, a diplomat, and how he worked his entire life to help those from outside of the United States. He said his father, who died 10 years ago, embodies what it means to be an American.

“He was unafraid of the powers that be and he was unwilling to let injustice fester,” Myers Asch said. “(The administration) is going after all of us (now), and they are going after the spirit of America.”

Myers Asch read a letter addressed to Trump with more than 450 signatures from residents and community organizations around central Maine that condemns the president’s executive order and urges Trump to “lift the travel ban and to restore and strengthen the refugee program.”

The letter goes on to say that the executive order is hateful and harmful and in violation of the spirit of the country.

Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, said people must stand up and fight back in every way they can. She said she moved to Hallowell 21 years ago because it was known as such a welcoming community, and she wants that to continue. Warren is drafting a resolution for the City Council to approve during its Feb. 13 meeting designating it as a “welcoming city.”

“There’s a reason we are all here this morning,” Warren said. “We are smart, we are open, we are welcoming and we know that diversity makes us better.”

Gardiner Mayor Thom Harnett said the council decided during its goal-setting session Saturday to make Gardiner a “welcoming community.” He said every human being has the right to feel safe, valued, respected, welcomed and loved.

“I have no idea what it’s like to be afraid because of the color of my skin, my sexual orientation, my gender identity, the language I speak or the country from where I come,” Harnett said. “I don’t know what it feels like, but I know it’s wrong, and I know it matters. I will not be silent.”

Khalid Zamat, who is from Nasiryah, Iraq, and whose family owns the new store, fled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime by boat in 2000. After serving a jail term in Mississippi for illegal immigration, being displaced in Louisiana because of Hurricane Katrina and trying life in several other states, his family settled in Portland. They moved in 2013 to Augusta and opened a grocery store on Northern Avenue the next year.

Zamat, a leader in Augusta’s Iraqi community, said America is strongest when everyone is accepted. One of his sons, Ounn, a junior at Hall-Dale High School, said he feels welcome living and going to school in the Augusta area.

Trump’s executive order, signed Friday afternoon, bans travel to the U.S. by people born in Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Yemen and Libya for 90 days and indefinitely stops Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. The order sparked several days of protests and demonstrations in airports and cities around the country.

The Rev. Carie Johnsen, representing religious leaders from the Capital Area Multifaith Association, said speaking out about the injustice of the order is one of the ways to fight back.

“We will not stand by silently when the most vulnerable among us are suffering and being persecuted,” said Johnsen, of the Unitarian Universalist Community Church. “As people of faith and conscious, we must be a bridge supporting the most vulnerable among us.”

Trump signed his order Jan. 27, which is also International Holocaust Remembrance Day. A White House statement Friday has been criticized because it didn’t mention the killing of 6 million Jews and instead referred to “innocent people.”

Elizabeth Helitzer, executive director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, said there are startling parallels between the Holocaust and what is happening now.

“When you talk about the Holocaust, like what’s going on now, the idea was creating ‘the other’ and demonizing them and scapegoating them,” Helitzer said following the rally. “Today, we are seeing that with Muslims and with refugees, but who knows what it’ll be tomorrow.”

Helitzer said between the Women’s March and the recent protests over Trump’s order, fatigue could set in, but people need to work to ensure this is a country that is welcoming and supportive of everyone’s basic human and civil rights.

“We need as many organizations, individuals and state legislators to stand up when things are occurring that violate what this country is supposed to be about,” she said.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

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