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News from Nearby: Westfield Church Talk on Helping Syrian Refugees Draws Controversy

Protesters outside First Congregational Church of Westfield Sunday. Credits: Susan Roselli Bonnell
Mahmoud Mahmoud, director of Church World Services in Jersey City, spoke about Syrian refugee resettlement in New Jersey. Credits: Susan Roselli Bonnell
"Souper Sunday" is held annually by the board of outreach, pictured here with guest speaker Mahmoud Mahmoud (center). The event profiles a faith-related topic each year. Credits: Susan Roselli Bonnell
Jim McDonald said he doesn't think Syrian refugees can be properly vetted. Credits: Susan Roselli Bonnell
First Congregational Church Senior Minister Rev. Dr. Mark Boyea   Credits: Susan Roselli Bonnell
Two uniformed Westfield police officers were present at the event. Credits: Susan Roselli Bonnell
Approximately 130 people attended the "Souper Sunday" event. Credits: Susan Roselli Bonnell

WESTFIELD, NJ – A speech on welcoming Syrian refugees at the First Congregational Church of Westfield attracted dissenters as well as supporters Sunday.

Mahmoud Mahmoud, director of the refugee-assistance organization Church World Services in Jersey City, was the guest speaker at the church’s open “Souper Sunday” that afternoon.

Mahmoud spoke on the history of the Syrian civil war, the procedures and process of vetting refugees, a description of the refugees’ experience once reaching the United States and the ways in which help could be provided to the refugees.

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“Immigration, and especially the immigration of Syrian refugees, has become an intensely debated issue during the last couple of years, especially during the current presidential campaign season,” FCC Senior Minister Mark Boyea said. 

Boyea said he first suspected there might be opposition in attendance when the church’s and CWS’s email boxes were inundated with hundreds of protest emails from an entity called "Florida Family Association" on Tuesday.  When he learned the event had been posted to an anti-Muslim, anti-immigration website that called for opposition to attend the event, he and lay leaders of the church reached out to the Westfield Police Department for guidance in assessing the situation.  As a result, two uniformed officers were on site as a precaution.

“FCC has a long history of both inviting conversation on issues and supporting causes that some or many have adamantly opposed,” Boyea said. “Our strong belief is that the absolute worst thing we can do as a spiritual community is to allow ourselves to be intimidated by outside groups for merely hosting an event meant to inform and teach us about a faith-related issue.”

A crowd of approximately 130 attended the event. While most of the attendees were church members, a small number of guests voiced their opposition or concern during the question-and-answer period.

One man, Jim McDonald, stood in front of the church holding a sign that read “Keep Syrians Out.”

“I’m against Syrian refugees being brought into America,” McDonald said. “Consistently since the fall of 2015, the FBI has said they have no way of vetting which refugees are safe and which have ISIS ties. That statement has never been refuted, so I think it’s crazy that people here claim to know better than the FBI.”

Mahmoud said the vetting process is extensive and involves multiple government agencies operating both in the United States and abroad.  

Charlotte O’Connor, a Scotch Plains resident, said she understood McDonald’s position and attended the event with other like-minded friends.   

“We’re not taking care of our veterans, we’re not taking care of our homeless. They [Syrians] want to stay in their own country, I’d rather we send the money over there.”  She  added, “Most of the time they don’t blend into our culture.”

“I think America teaches them how to assimilate,” Mahmoud said. “That’s why America is the most unique country on earth, where you’re forced to assimilate. I take a look around this room; I take a look at the diversity in it. America is where a person just assimilates. We have Chinese stores and Colombian bakeries and Cuban restaurants and, at the end of the day, a person just assimilates.”

Church World Services operates as a resettlement office, arranging housing and providing basic necessities to arriving immigrants, Mahmoud explained. They greet immigrants at the airport, provide assistance in enrolling children in school, teach adults how to pay taxes and open bank accounts.  Their services extend for approximately 90 days.  He said most immigrants are self-sufficient at that point, or work with private organizations and churches for ongoing support.

While the Jersey City office has been open for just about a year, Church World Services has settled more than 450,000 refugees since it was founded in 1946 to help World War II refugees, according to the organization.

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