When Nizar Ottoman thinks about Eau Claire, its personal significance comes quickly to mind.
“Home,” the Syrian immigrant said Wednesday night. “The Chippewa Valley is home.”
He stood in a back room of Unitarian Universalist Congregation, away from the noise of local political leaders, professors and residents preparing for a refugee and immigrant welcoming rally. In the church’s main room, attendees overflowed into the back of the building, linking arms and carrying signs that read “Hate has no home here” in several languages.
Ottoman, a 44-year-old physician and professor, was one among many immigrants and children of immigrants who spoke at the rally, organized in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. Councilman Andrew Werthmann, a co-organizer of the event, hopes it sparks a grass-roots movement urging city government to declare Eau Claire a Welcoming City.
The Welcoming City movement — a growing response to Trump’s travel ban — asserts individual cities as committed to fostering inclusivity for immigrants and all residents.
“I think it’s really important that people in this community who may have come here as a refugee, maybe here as an immigrant, that they feel welcome,” Werthmann said, “especially given what’s happening at the national level right now.”
According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, Eau Claire is home to 2,533 foreign-born people as of 2015. Between 2002 and 2016, 124 refugees have resettled in Eau Claire, according to U.S. Department of State data on wiscontext.org.
There are no Wisconsin cities listed as members on the Welcoming America website, and Winona and Austin are the only two Minnesota cities listed. More information about Welcoming Cities is available at welcomingamerica.org.
Rally organizers started a citizen proclamation for supporters to sign, which Werthmann plans to send along to the City Council, the County Board, the school board, Gov. Scott Walker and Trump’s administration. The proclamation will remain open to sign for a few more weeks, Werthmann said. As a City Council member, he said he’s not yet sure whether the majority of council members are in support of passing a measure to declare Eau Claire a Welcoming City, but is optimistic.
Walker sided with Trump’s travel ban in a statement issued Monday.
“This is a safety issue,” Walker said. “A resettlement program to help refugees is compassionate and one that I support, but we should ensure we are doing everything possible to put the safety of our citizens first.”
Werthmann said the rally was a message of solidarity with demonstrations against the travel ban nationally, but at its core was meant to support affected people in the Eau Claire community.
“That sends a powerful message to people who are here, people who are looking to come here, about who we want to be,” Werthmann said of the welcoming rally, regardless of the change it has at the state or national level. “I think that’s a powerful message in itself.”
Supporters at the rally shared the same sentiment.
“I’ve lived here all my life,” said Paula Bonnin, 42, of Eau Claire. “Eau Claire is one of those places where it doesn’t matter what your color is or who you pray to. I want everyone to know we’re not the kind of community that will push you out.”
While Trump’s travel ban only extends for 90 days, Syrian refugees are indefinitely banned under the executive order. Ottoman has three brothers and many loved ones still in Syria, he said.
When it comes to declaring Eau Claire a Welcoming City, Ottoman said his experience living and working in the Chippewa Valley for 13 years has made him feel as though he has a family stateside.
“It’s already a great welcoming city,” Ottoman said. “I have never doubted that.”
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