Weary travelers in need of a nicotine fix saw their turf adjacentto Raleigh-Durham International’s Terminal 2 swiftly overtaken by more than a thousand fiery demonstrators Sunday. Just after noon, outrage over President Donald Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban,” the executive order Trump signed Friday that banned citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States over the next ninety days, reached its boiling point locally. (The protest at RDU was one of dozens at airports all over the country Sunday.) Though a federal judge blocked deportation of people stranded at airports Saturday evening, anxiety over the executive action, the impending wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and the administration’s callous attitude toward immigrants and refugees in general was palpable.
A seemingly endless flow of RDU “Special Event” shuttles transported busloads of sign-wielding demonstrators from extended-stay parking lots to an area the size of a tennis court, just beyond the gates of a terminal typically reserved for Delta, Jet Blue, and American Airways passengers. A three-hour permit, from one to four p.m., gave the demonstrators ample time—or perhaps not enough time—to make their voices heard. Both the shuttles and the permit were seen as signs of RDU’s cooperation with the protests.
“Refugees are welcome here,” the protesters chanted. “We the people, united, will never be divided.”
Mia Ives-Rublee, who helped organize the protest, said the Triangle, which houses thousands of immigrants, would feel the effect of the ban. “They’re not going to be able to study, to work, to provide for their families and reunite with their families under this policy,” she said. “I know a couple of LGBTQ people who came here based on the fact they were being persecuted in their countries. They’re scared they could be deported.”
Judging by the turnout this afternoon, they’re not going anywhere without a fight. As the chants continued, the shuttles kept coming. By two o’clock, nearly eight hundred people were crammed into a space that had, by then, been closed to traffic and sectioned off with yellow police tape to keep the crowd contained. Immigrants, refugees, and Muslim residents—students and workers living in the United States thanks to green cards—spoke candidly about their fear, bewilderment, and disappointment in the federal government.
Ismail Suayah, a Libyan-American from Carrboro, immigrated to the United States when he was in his twenties. A scientist and software engineer, Suayah has spent half of his life here, has married, and is raising a family. He said Trump’s immigration policy doesn’t make sense.
“These nations’ history has nothing to do with terrorism,” he said, referring to the seven countries—Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan—on Trump’s list. “They are mired in chaos and tremendously suffering, like Libya, struggling in a civil war.”
Suayah mentioned his aging mother and his siblings who, in Libya, receive electricity for only two hours a day. They would, perhaps, like to travel to America to meet their extended families, Suayah said, but, “more than anything else, these nations need help. This undermines any effort to try to bring stability to Libya.”
Jalal Osman, a special education teacher from Durham, was at the demonstration with his partner, Eleanor Wertman, and other friends. Osman wore a jalabiya and carried a sign that read, “Hug Me, I’m Sudanese.” His entire family is from Sudan, he explained; some are still there, other are in the United States as citizens or with green cards. They travel between the two countries frequently.
“I’m hearing even people with green cards are being detained at airports,” Osman says. (On Sunday evening, the Trump administration reversed course and said it would allow most people from the affected countries who have green cards to enter the United States.) “I’m just worried if my family tries to come visit us, it’s not going to work out. This kind of clash in the government is totally ridiculous. The idea they’re forcing people to stay in airports, unable to call a lawyer, unable to talk to their families, is truly horrific.”
Cary resident Shree Kupam brought her eight-year-old twin boys Nehar and Suhass to teach them what it means to stand up for human rights.
“I am so proud to live here,” Kupam said. “I wanted to teach [my sons] about equality and to show them that all of the rights we do have, we had to work hard for it.”
By three o’clock, the crowd had gotten so large that protesters breached the police line that separated them from the terminal’s gates. They marched forward, chanting and hoisting their signs, filling the traffic lane and momentarily blocking the pedestrian walkway connecting the terminal to the airport’s cavernous parking decks, so police asked the crowd to disperse.
Kristie Van Auken, an RDU spokesperson, said the protesters’ permit anticipated 150 people; all told, more than 1,500 attended, ten times the predicted amount. “They were peaceful, but there was a time when safety was compromised for travelers and protesters because the crowd was so large,” Van Auken said, noting that there were no arrests. “We bent over backwards to accommodate the large number of protesters, because we believe in lawful protests.”
As the crowd dissipated, Wertman expounded on what she hoped the day’s demonstration would accomplish.
“It’s important to show the world that Trump does not have an ideological mandate,” Wertman said. “The world needs to know that Americans do not stand for his hate. Hopefully we can shame Congress into speaking out about this, because I’d say their constituents are pretty engaged.”
Additional reporting by Araceli Cruz.