Special for the Armenian Weekly
Can the Executive Order that bans travelers from certain Muslim countries to enter U.S. affect the Armenian community? Many Armenians come from Middle Eastern countries and we can already see the influence of the U.S. immigration policies on their lives. Mediators Beyond Borders had a panel presentation about immigration rights on April 15 in Los Angeles.
The panelists included lawyers, professors, and activists. Alice Yardum-Hunter was the Armenian immigration attorney whose words touched my heart. As I was introduced to her as an Armenian, we talked about our trips to Turkey. She said, “When I was walking in some of the roads, they looked familiar, the scenes were in my genetic memory.”
I was invited to the educational event by an Iranian female professor, Elahe Amani, who is very active with variety of organizations dealing with women’s issues and immigrants’ rights. Professor Amani and Attorney Yardum-Hunter traveled to Turkey in 2013 to participate at the annual Congress of Mediators Beyond Borders. There was also a training for Women Leaders from Middle East and North Africa where, Gaiane Astoyan, an activist from Armenia also participated.
Each panelist talked about how they had become involved as advocates for immigrants, each had heart-warming stories. Apolonio Morales works at Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and has done advocacy for immigrants. He told a story of his mother who was an undocumented Mexican woman with an unfulfilled dream to go to college, so she insisted that her son got his education.
Another panelist was Dania Alkhouli is an Syrian-American woman who became an activist after being harassed and ridiculed in school growing up in Los Angeles area. Because of this, Dania and her mother founded the nonprofit organization, A Country Called to Syria, to educate Americans about Syria’s history and culture. Michael Kazemi is an Iranian-American lawyer who was involved in many human rights groups developed a compassion for immigrants.
“My grandparents survived the Armenian Genocide. I can’t imagine them not being able to enter this country because they were refugees,” said Alice Yardum-Hunter, who has been active with the Armenian Bar Association and has volunteered in variety of events helping the Armenian community of Los Angeles. Alice continued, “Why do we have stereotypes about refugees? Immigrants come from many socio-economic levels.” Alice has her immigration law office and since 2004 has received the prestigious title of Super Lawyer designation by Thomas Reuters Company. Alice proudly said that her grandfather was the first Armenian lawyer graduating from NYU Law School in 1919.
The Trump travel ban signed on Jan. 27 has affected many immigrants including Armenians who come here from Iran and Syria. The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) issued a statement about the legal and humanitarian implications of the ban. Many Armenians have relatives in Middle East or they travel there and are concerned with the implications of the travel ban.
At the second part of the conference the audience were in small groups of facilitated dialogue where they talked about their worries of immigration policies, how they affect their lives, and came up with suggestions. All four groups felt the need to educate the public to fight racism and fear of immigrants.
I am a U.S. citizen and was born in Iran. I have lived in Washington, D.C. during the Iran Hostage Crisis and have vivid memories of living in fear. Every time somebody asked, “Where are you from?” my heart rate raised and I did not know how to dodge the question. Saying I was Armenian was not helpful either. Armenia was part of the Soviet Union and I was labeled a communist. I thought, “These people don’t know the difference between Iranian, Russian, or Armenian.”
Knowledge is the key to success. We need more conferences like this to bring community dialogue and awareness to the plight of refugees and immigrants. As the floor was open to share final thoughts, I mentioned how the Armenian community of Glendale brought change to ABC7 News.
On April 24, 2016 a cameraman working for KABC TV insulted Armenians while he was interviewing a Turkish couple. Numerous emails, phone calls and social media postings put pressure and KABC TV president apologized. After few months, on Aug. 30, 2016, the ANCA and ABC7 had a community meeting at the Armenian Youth Center in Glendale. This was a good example that public pressure and community awareness are essential for growth and peace.
I am thankful to progressive organizations that provide these kind of opportunities to bring open dialogue and awareness to our rights.