Refugee bill draws hundreds to rally denouncing fear-mongering

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BOSTON Carrying signs depicting the Statue of Liberty or scrawled with slogans, several hundred people gathered on Boston Common in front of the State House Friday to protest a measure passed by the U.S. House of Representatives that would toughen screening requirements for refugees from war-torn Syria.

“If we act out of fear, the terrorists win,” some of the signs read.

In the aftermath of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris that killed approximately 130 and injured hundreds of others, politicians across party lines have called on the Obama Administration to temporarily halt the flow of Syrian refugees into the U.S. More than 4 million Syrians have been displaced by the civil war there and many have fled devastating attacks by Islamic State, the terrorist organization responsible for the Paris horror. But at least one of the Paris attackers may have entered France with Syrian refugees streaming out of Turkey and southeastern Europe.

On Nov. 16, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said he wanted to know more about the security screening process before he would accept more Syrian refugee resettlements in the state. In all, 85 Syrian refugees were relocated to Massachusetts in the fiscal year that ended in September, up from four the year before. The Obama administration has said it wants to quintuple the number of Syrian refugees resettled in the U.S. in fiscal 2016.

Some Democrats sharply criticized Baker for his comments. But the Republican didn’t join 27 other governors who signed a letter last week to President Barack Obama urging him to review security screening procedures and deal with gaps cited by FBI Director James Comey. Obama denounced the requests and the House measure as politically driven fear mongering. Last week, dozens of Democrats joined Republicans in the House to pass the bill that would tighten refugee screening, ignoring Obama’s veto threat.

On Friday, chants of “don’t give in to racist fear, refugees are welcome here” echoed across the Boston Common.

“We are horrified by the rhetoric of these governors,” Sofia Arias, who helped to organize the protest, told the assembled crowd. She faulted the state leaders “for using the attacks in Paris as a reason to scapegoat Syrians who were not responsible.”

Most of the terrorists who attacked Parisians were French or Belgian nationals, authorities have said.

Responding Friday to the governor’s critics, Lizzy Guyton, Baker’s spokeswoman, said he “believes that Massachusetts has a role in welcoming refugees into the commonwealth and in the wake of recent, terrible tragedies overseas is working to ensure the public’s safety and security despite the limited role state governments play in the process.”

Several speakers addressed the rally Friday, recounting their experiences as refugees.  One, from Bosnia, said she “lost her childhood” when the Bosnian War broke out in 1992, telling the crowd that she spent several years in different refugee camps 26 in all before arriving in the U.S. in 2000. The resettlement process, she said, was complicated and time consuming, and not as simple as just buying a plane ticket and landing here.

One Syrian-born man who grew up in the U.S. recounted his experience as a first responder following the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. He appealed to the city not to give in to fear.

“People’s lives are at stake,” said Naema Nayyar, a 28-year-old woman from Braintree who came to the rally to show her support for refugees.

“We can help,” Nayyar said. “It’s frustrating that we have the power to help and just aren’t.”

More than 200,000 Syrians have reportedly been killed in the Syrian conflict, which began in 2012 as opponents of President Bashar al-Assad sought to topple his Ba’athist regime. Most of the victims have been Muslims.

Critics of calls for tighter screening of refugees say the appearance of rejecting Syrians fleeing the conflict gives Islamic State a new lever to recruit combatants by suggesting that Americans are anti-Muslim.