Women's March carries on through winter weather with a focus on refugees
BEMIDJI -- A group of nearly 60 activists marched through strong wind gusts and heavy snow Saturday to celebrate a century of women's right to vote and offer support for refugees.
Since January 2017, organizers in Bemidji have organized local Women's March events, coinciding with others taking place across the nation and the world. Locally, participants have marched along Bemidji Avenue and Paul Bunyan Drive in support of women's rights, physical and sexual assault victims and environmental stewardship.
For the 2020 march, though, organizers also incorporated the topic of refugees, which has been a widely discussed subject for nearly two weeks in the community.
On Tuesday, Jan. 7, the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 to opt out of the United States Refugee Resettlement Program. Authorized through an executive order from President Donald Trump, the action made Beltrami the first county in Minnesota and the second in the country to not take refugees.
Voting in favor of a motion to opt out of the refugee program were Commissioners Richard Anderson, Craig Gaasvig and Jim Lucachick, while Reed Olson and Tim Sumner were against it. The vote has since become temporarily null after a decision in federal court.
On Wednesday, Jan. 15, U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte of Maryland temporarily halted Trump's executive order.
While the county's action and the refugee topic across the country is halted until its resolved in federal court, though, a petition was circulated Saturday opposing the 3-2 vote. Near the event's conclusion, at least 57 people had signed the petition.
"As a community we should re-look at our decision and try to offer compassion to refugees," the petition read.
During the speaking portion of the event following the march, Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht spoke about the response she's received in the days since the county's decision.
"We want to value the diversity in our community and our nation. That's what I am hearing a lot about since we had the vote at the county," Albrecht said. "I've had calls from people who're fearful of coming here. .. That's heartbreaking to me, because we are working hard to improve our community and make it welcoming."
Moving forward, Albrecht encouraged those in attendance to remain civically active.
"Don't just get angry. Get busy," Albrecht said. "Get busy organizing. Get busy working together. We want to increase voter registration. We want to increase voter participation and we want to increase organizing participation."
Saturday's event concluded with a panel featuring Olson and Sumner, as well as Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations' Minnesota chapter.
As part of the discussion, panelists said work needs to be done to change the perception of refugees.
"There's this false premise that refugee equals unskilled and non-working. That they're going to crush our social services programs," Olson said. "All of the money related to refugees are federal dollars, so they're not on programs through the state. These are also people who come here wanting stability. So we have to counter that narrative."
"Refugees and immigrants are part of the secret success of America," Hussein said. "Today, companies are started by refugees or by children of refugees."