A Small Victory in O’Hare

At 3 p.m. on Saturday January 28, Jacob Amiri, a junior at the University of Chicago, was settling in for a quiet night to recover from a weeklong cold. Hannah Landes, his classmate, was making a salad at her apartment. Dr. Jessica Darrow, a lecturer at the University’s School of Social Service Administration specializing in refugee resettlement, was planning a trip with her class to see a documentary that night. Nathan Roter, a master’s candidate in International Social Welfare at the University, was just looking at his email.

A few hours later, all four of them would arrive at O’Hare International Airport, part of a citywide protest and nationwide movement against President Donald Trump’s recent executive order indefinitely barring all Syrian refugees and blocking citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries (Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen) from entering the country for ninety days. The order, titled “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States,” had been signed by the president twenty-four hours earlier, and its effects were just starting to be felt in airports across the country.  

At O’Hare, eighteen passengers were being detained as a result of the order, prompting the Arab American Action Network (AAAN)a nonprofit, grassroots organization that “strives to strengthen the Arab community in the Chicago area”to plan an “Emergency Solidarity Rally” in response. At 2:39 p.m., the group tweeted out that the rally would be held at 6 p.m. that night in O’Hare’s international Terminal 5. In the hours that followed, the message would be spread far and wide.

Roter first heard about the protest through a legal aid listserv he receives from the International Refugee Assistance Program (IRAP). Having worked “mostly with asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants,” Roter told the Gate that he was inspired to head to O’Hare that night because of “my work with them [refugees] and my belief that the US has no right to turn anyone away.” Arriving to find tables full of lawyers from IRAP and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Roter made a makeshift sign advertising legal aid and began walking around the airport terminal looking for families in need of assistance, eventually “marching and yelling with the other protesters.”

Meanwhile, Amiri and Landes, who had spent the day avidly following the developing story of Trump’s executive order taking effect, both noticed the AAAN’s event trending on Twitter at around 5 p.m. that evening. After texting friends to see if they would like to join, both students “immediately” headed over. When asked what inspired such a quick response, Amiri explained, “For me, going to the protest was a very easy decision. My father came to this country from Iran, fleeing political persecution because he advocated for democracy under an oppressive regime.” Amiri went on to note “had he [his father] been turned away, he faced certain imprisonment and probable execution.” Landes, similarly, cited solidarity with Muslim Americans as her driving factor, calling Trump’s executive order the first step in his “white supremacist agenda” and remarking that “seeing it go into effect so quickly was terrifying.”

Darrow, an expert on immigration and social welfare, also heard about the event through social media. Conflicted about whether to cancel the documentary screening trip for her students, she eventually got in contact with her class and “we all came to a collective decision to attend [the protest] as a group.” When asked about what led her to O’Hare that cold night, Darrow responded, “In all the years I have done this work, I have never seen the United States act in such a way that so egregiously calls into question our moral standing in the world.”

According to the AAAN, over three thousand individuals showed up to the rally that night.  They formed crowds inside and outside the international terminal, blocking traffic outside the airport as they marched, cheered, and chanted. Those who attended reported that the experience was an overwhelmingly positive one: Darrow remarked that she was “heartened by the feeling of commitment and love among the protesters towards those very people our government is targeting,” while Amiri concurred that it was “reassuring to be surrounded by so many people who cared so passionately about justice for those being silenced.” Landes, meanwhile, noted that it was especially satisfying to see those detained released that very night, in response to a temporary stay issued a little after 8 p.m. CT by a federal judge in Brooklyn, NY.

On the whole though, most of the attendees remained skeptical and pragmatic. Although she acknowledged the joy of seeing O’Hare’s detained released, Darrow also noted that she was “dismayed at how quickly we could move from expecting refugees to pass freely into this country to celebrating the small victory when one detained was released by border control.”  Landes, Amiri, and Roter all similarly stated that it was important to “stay vigilant.” Amiri later added, “My biggest hope is that people don’t become discouraged and stop publicly standing up for what they believe in.”

Having now continued intermittently for three days, it is clear that the AAAN’s “Emergency Rally” has surpassed many expectations in terms of duration, size, and effect. While this particular event will likely come to an end in the coming days, additional movements like “Resist Trump Tuesdays” (weekly rallies planned in response to actions taken by the president) have begun trending across social media, making it unlikely that Chicago will stay quiet for very long.

For Amiri though, the protest ended—albeit temporarilyjust before 8 p.m. His cold got the better of him, and he reluctantly wandered the airport with his friends until they were able to find a train to take them to the Blue Line station. It wasn’t until after they had boarded that the stay was issued, ensuring the passage of those detained into the country. As the train pulled away, Amiri could faintly hear cheers as he stuffed the sign he had made with black sharpie a few hours earlier into a friend’s knapsack.

It read: “I am an Iranian and I do not pose a threat to democracy.”

The image featured in this article has been taken courtesy of the author, Jake Gosselin.

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