by Sue Ann Rybak
More than 300 people packed Lovett Park outside of Lovett Memorial Library, 6945 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy on Friday evening to participate in Lights for Liberty, a nationwide vigil to end human detention camps. The event was one of more than 700 held across five continents on July 12.
Everywhere you looked there were signs: “Families have No Borders,” “Dialogue not Detention,” “They are just little kids,” “What Makes a Great is Who We Help,” “Make America Think Again,” “Jewish Refugee Against Camps” and “I am a descendant of an immigrant. Are you?” There were people holding clotheslines with baby onesies that said, “Why are you doing this?” “Where’s my Momma?” and “What kind of Country Locks up Children?” There was a cage with baby shoes and baby onesies and signs that said, “Children need their parents.”
Mt. Airy resident Ann Mintz, 72, one of the organizers of the event, thanked people for coming to the event and recalled Martin Luther King, Jr’s words: “We may have all come on different ships. But we’re in the same boat now.” And she added, “We don’t like the direction that boat is headed.”
“We are here because we care about our country and the tens of thousands of men, women and children being held in brutal, inhumane conditions on our southern border, which is against our law, is against international law and is against the laws of human decency,” Mintz said. “We also care about the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are experiencing fear and anxiety to a degree that has never been seen in my lifetime. Finally, we are here to take a stand and say it must stop.”
Mt. Airy resident Betsy Teutsch, 66, who also helped organize the event, said that the protest came together at “a staggering speed,” because people are outraged at President Donald Trump’s immigrant detention camps and centers.
“The United States is a beacon to the world, and when the United States falters, as we have, it’s a global issue not just an American issue,” she said. “Across this country, we have witnessed acts of people fleeing persecution that many of us never expected to see in our lifetime. Our own government is intentionally weaponizing cruelty and traumatizing innocent children for sadistic political ends.”
People of all ages and walks of life were there, including 17-year-old Maya Goldshaw, of Jenkintown.
When the Local asked why the former Mt. Airy resident decided to come to the event with her two teenage friends, she replied, “It’s hard to put into one sentence because there is so much emotion that goes with it. It’s a moral imperative. Trump has done a lot of terrible things, but kids in cages – that’s unconscionable. So, I feel like we had no choice but to come.”
Rabbi Deborah Cohen, 54, of Mt. Airy, came to the protest with her 12-year-old daughter because three out of her four grandparents came to the U.S. as immigrants seeking religious freedom from violence.
There were no abrasive chants or screaming at the protest. Instead, poetry and music played a key role in this rally. Russian- American poet Olga Livshin read her poem, “Something There Is That Doesn’t Love.”
Voices Rising Philly sang “Down by the Borderline,” (To the tune of “Down by the Riverside”), “Who’s the Criminal Here,” Two of a Kind with Voices Rising Philly sang “Cages,” Emily Joy Goldberg with Voices Rising Philly sang “Open the Doors,” and Chana Rothman sang “Gates of Justice.”
The music seemed to draw people in and keep them engaged. Even young children sat on the grass and listened or played on hammocks nearby. But even the children stopped laughing when Luis Canales, 31, a refugee from Honduras, shared his story.
Even as a child, Canales had a passion for justice. At the young age of 14, he worked at a radio station that broadcast his speeches condemning gangs and drugs. The final straw came when during one broadcast speech, in which he went in front of city hall and asked for more protection for his hometown of Siguateque. That’s when the gangs decided to silence him permanently.
“One morning, I was on my way to work at the station on my bicycle and a gang member started to chase me,” said Canales. “I began to go downhill on a gravel road when the gang member got out his gun and shot.
“At that moment, I fell off my bike and was knocked unconscious. That saved my life. The gang member thought he killed me.”
Shortly thereafter, he knew he had no other choice but to leave Honduras. At 16, he put on his walking shoes and walked all the way to the U.S., roughly 2,400 miles, but was caught by immigration authorities and flown home. After two more failed attempts, on Jan. 13, 2005, Canales finally made it to the United Stated and was released to a cousin in Scranton. Altogether, he had walked roughly 7,500 miles in the same pair of shoes.
Canales, who is now an immigration lawyer, said the shoes are a reminder of his journey and what is at stake for his clients.
“We must remember that we are a nation of immigrants,” he said.
Sister Eileen Marnien, SSJ, told the Local that she and other Sisters of Saint Joseph were in El Paso last August and saw firsthand the abuses that are taking places there and the inhumane treatment of mothers and fathers and their children “who are coming to the US desperately trying to find safety, peace and justice and a better life.” Several St. Joseph nuns from Philadelphia have spent time serving at Annunciation House in El Paso and at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas.
“These agencies and volunteers are generously and selflessly serving those most in need,” she said. “They witness to the love and care of the best of us and who we say, we are, as U.S. citizens.”
She said the Sisters of Saint Joseph are working hard to share their experiences at the border – to get the facts out and share the truth.
Judith Bernstein-Baker, the former executive director of HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society Pennsylvania, said many immigration lawyers face increased stress and ridicule because they care about their cases.
“Just like our immigrants and our refugees are under attack, in a way, so are immigration lawyers,” she said. “We are working with each other to fight back. We are determined, we are persistent, and we are going to do all we can to make sure people’s rights are guaranteed, as they are in our constitution and in our laws.”
Betsy Teutsch recalled what was to her the most powerful moment of the gathering that day. A mother and her daughter, who looked to be about 10, approached her and the mother asked if her daughter could speak at the vigil.
When Teutsch explained that they had a set program and asked her what she wanted to say, the girl burst into tears, saying, “It is so frightening.”
“Our children have secondary trauma from living in the world as it is in the U.S.A. today,” Teutsch said. “I suggested she hand out the Liberty Lights. I hope that act was comforting to her.”