Bonding over baklava: Lawrence meets with refugee advocates

Boxes of Syrian pastries were shared with members of the Arizona legislature on Feb. 10, 2019, when refugee and refugee advocates met with state lawmakers. Photo courtesy of Malda Al Sarayji

Refugee advocates met with Rep. Jay Lawrence last week to get the Republican lawmaker who said “I don’t want refugees settled here” to support two legislative proposals welcoming adults and children fleeing war and persecution around the world to Arizona.

The meeting took place in the House of Representatives building Feb. 10 as part of Refugee Lobbying Day, which is organized by We Are All America, a nonprofit that advocates for refugees, asylum seekers and other immigrants. 

Lawrence made headlines in January when he said at a tea party event that refugees “take from us, will make for lower wages for us, they will make for more expense in our schools, more expense in our emergency rooms.” He has since distanced himself from those comments. 

In his meeting with refugee advocates, Lawrence addressed the controversial comments right away. 

“He came and immediately started the meeting with the notion that he had been misunderstood, he did not mean that he doesn’t want any refugees in the US,” Malda Al Sarayji told Arizona Mirror. Al Sarayji is a Syrian immigrant and vice president of Refugee and Youth Empowerment of ELFA, a non-profit group that supports refugees state-wide.  

“His concerns were very legitimate for me, he was very respectful, he was open to questions,” she said. 

When Lawrence asked what skills refugees bring, Al Sarayji presented him with a box of Syrian pastries.

“He said, ‘Is this baklava? Oh I love baklava,’” she recalled. Al Sarayji then made her case for welcoming refugees. 

“Well, more Syrian refugees means more baklava,” she quipped. 

Al Sarayji said Lawrence also had concerns about where refugees are placed, and questions about the vetting process. 

Lawrence couldn’t be reached for comment to speak at the meeting. His legislative assistant said that the lawmaker from Scottsdale thought “it was a wonderful meeting” and he was grateful for their stories and time. 

Also in the meeting with Lawrence sat Connie Phillips. She’s the CEO and president of Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest, a non-profit organization that receives funds from the federal government to assist refugees in their first months of arrival in the US. 

Phillips said the meeting with Lawrence was “pleasant” and an “open dialogue.” She added that she stressed that “there is no downside” to refugee resettlement, and clarified how refugee resettlement is different from U.S.-Mexico border and immigration issues. 

“It’s really hard so often for people to make the difference between refugee resettlement … from what’s happening at the border, and that is the hardest thing I think for people in Arizona to keep straight. 

“When we are talking about refugee resettlement, we are talking about a very specific program, when the people who come have been thoroughly vetted. Really, they are the safest people to ever step foot in the United States,” Phillips said. 

‘We are all America’

For Refugee Lobbying Day, more than 80 refugees and community leaders gathered to celebrate the contributions of refugees and educate lawmakers on the process they undertake to arrive in the U.S., said Nejra Sumic, state refugee organizer with We Are All America.

During a press conference, Jolie Nabigondo, who arrived in Arizona from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2002, shared her story. She said while she was in her first year of medical school in 1998, she and her family were imprisoned for 11 months. 

“I was tortured in every way for a woman,” she said. After spending time in Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya, Nabigondo was approved for resettlement in the U.S. She called it a “second chance.”

She now has a nursing degree.

“My story is a mere drop in the ocean compared to the many success stories across the refugee community, which highlight amazing achievements and resilience of so many of them who manage to overcome adversity,” Nabigondo said. 

She praised Gov. Doug Ducey’s commitment to continue welcoming refugees to Arizona.

“I encourage other legislators to adhere to the same commitment and vote to keep Arizona as welcoming to refugees as always, because we are all America,” Nabigondo said. 

Later that afternoon, the state Senate unanimously passed a resolution supporting refugee resettlement in Arizona. 

“Refugees contribute enormously to Arizona’s economy in various ways as members of the state’s workforce, as homeowners, as business owners and entrepreneurs, by paying taxes, as consumers in the nation’s marketplace and by revitalizing struggling local Arizona communities,” the resolution states. “We must continue to support a stronger national effort to resettle the world’s most vulnerable refugees so that our state and nation can benefit from their entrepreneurial energy as our newest and most grateful residents.”

Senate Concurrent Resolution 1024 was introduced by Sen. Tony Navarrete, D-Phoenix. There’s a similar measure in the House, House Concurrent Resolution 2030, proposed by Rep. Tony Rivero, R-Peoria.  

Navarrete said at the Feb. 10 press conference that refugee resettlement “should never be a contentious issue.”

Imam Omar Tawil of the Islamic Community Center of Tempe also made an appeal for people of all faiths to welcome refugees. 

“We shouldn’t act any differently than what our prophets and our messengers have all brought: Do unto others as you would have others do to you,” he said. “We may have whatever thoughts we may have about what’s going on anywhere in the world, but at the end of the day, it’s human beings that are suffering, it’s human beings that are seeking shelter, it’s human beings that are seeking compassion, and it’s human beings that should give it to them.”