Civic engagement breeds hope

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“Let’s look at the truth—the reality. It’s already very strict,” said Peterborough activist Becky Sakellariou of the vetting process immigrants already have to go through to get into this country.

In response to President Trump’s recent travel ban, and proposed border wall, Sakellariou recently joined a group of citizens, who’ve become activists, and are now distributing two petitions in their hometown of Peterborough, NH.

These petitions, “Resolution to Protect the Rights of Individuals Article 1 and 2,” began circulating about 3-4 weeks ago, and call for a minimum of 25 eligible voters of the town to sign each in support of these two measures:

  1. In order to ensure that (Peterborough) is a safe and welcoming community for all, employees of the town of Peterborough shall not enquire about, report, or act upon any person’s immigration status under any circumstances while performing their duties.
  1. The town of (Peterborough) affirms its commitment to the rights ensured by the First and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America and declares that in the town of (Peterborough) no person shall be required to declare their religious or philosophical belief or affiliation, nor to sign a registry for any belief or affiliation.

These measures are sanctuary policies. Cities and states adopting policies like this, that “disentangle local criminal justice systems from immigration enforcement, limit data-sharing with federal immigration authorities, and ensure legal representation for immigrants facing deportation,” according to the article “4 Ways Cities and States Can Become Sanctuaries Now”  by Daniel Altschuler and Peter L. Markowitz, are the best way to take a stand against Trump’s ban.

These petitions have already exceeded the minimum amount of signatures required, been submitted to the Board of Selectmen, and placed on the docket for the yearly town meeting held in May, and are continuing to garner additional signatures and support.

The idea for these actions originated at a group Sakellariou attends once a week containing 10-15 core members, though more are often present, which is run by State Representative Ivy Vann from Peterborough, and was spurred out of her desire to pull people together and “prevent helplessness from taking over.” During their meetings, they focus on what actions to take, and steer away from the type of complaining that eats up time without feeding solutions. The meetings are two pronged:

  1. Members learn how local, state, and federal government works.
  2. They develop strategies, like the above petitions.

Actions members participate in phoning government officials to provide feedback. Particularly, offering thank-yous for stands. “This only takes ten minutes,” said Sakellariou, who, along with being an activist, is a poet and teacher. “Our representatives want to hear from us. It’s really, really helpful.”

Members of this group find like-minded individuals there and break off into work sects that can support each other in their specific actions. Some members are already activists, so they share their knowledge, while others are new to it. Sakellariou said, “It’s all about coming together in a group, not getting lost in the wilderness. We’re learning a lot. It’s been a lifesaver and a real education in government. But it’s just the beginning.”

Sakellariou, who splits her time between Peterborough and Greece, where she lived for 45 years and still owns a home and has family, was inspired to get involved after returning from a lengthy trip to Greece, in November of 2016, as she felt betrayed by the election results.

Near her home in Greece, she’d just spent months assisting Syrian, African, and Middle Eastern refugees lost in a sea of tens of thousands of emigrants escaping war torn countries. “Peterborough: Woman travels to refugee camps in Greece”  by Ashley Saari, an article featured in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, charted her journey through the makeshift tents and abandoned buildings of the camp, where Sakellariou wandered asking what people needed on a small scale. There she confronted a lot of suffering, and only staved off despair through physical work: she helped to obtain gravel to combat issues of dust and mud and delivered clean underwear and foam mattresses for those who were pregnant, then assisted in teaching an English class to Syrian women.

Sakellariou with some Afghani female students and her translator, as featured in Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Sakellariou with some Afghani female students and her translator, as featured in Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

“Having been on the ground working with the refugees, the little bit of exposure I got to their lives—what they’re going through, I guess just what Trump did about closing the borders and the building of the wall, and I was horrified that he made this ban because I know these people; I know immigrants in this country who are terrified. I was an immigrant, a first world immigrant, but I still share the care, nostalgia, some of the questionable ways I was treated. Seeing this impulsive decision without any care,” Sakellariou said is what inspired her into action.

“Not one Syrian immigrant has committed a terrorist act here or in the world,” Sakellariou continued, a claim backed up in “Where America’s Terrorists Actually Come From: Syrian refugees have committed zero acts against the United States” by Uri Friedman, which states that “seven countries singled out by Trump have killed zero people in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and 2015.”

Sakellariou said of the Syrian refugees she met in Greece: “They’re good people, desperate people wanting to get away from war. Syria is disappearing, most I talk to think it won’t exist.” She became involved in her hometown of Peterborough because she believes it’s necessary; she believes even small acts can make a difference.

“Sinking into hopelessness and despair around the election and pre-election, I knew it was detrimental to my soul,” Sakellariou said, “and I didn’t want to stay in that place, and knowing Ivy was going to get into this [hosting weekly groups], it was as if we were holding each other up into the possibility of hope and change.”

For those who wish to get more involved but feel overwhelmed by the scale of the issues, or just don’t know what to do, Sakellariou recommends that they choose actions that fit into their schedule, set goals and achieve them. There are certain online resources she uses that she recommends, which are very helpful guides for political action, such as:

  1. My Civic Workout, which features 5-minute, 10-minute, and 30-minute activism “workouts,” ways to get involved in the time you can spare without becoming too overwhelmed.
  2. Indivisible , which is a “Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda.”
  3. League of Women’s Voters, which is actually for both men and women who want to become active.
  4. Finding Steady Ground, a little different than the others, but important, this site’s about maintaining the strength you need to be in the best possible shape to continue persuing political change.

“If I could tell the young generation one thing,” Sakellariou said, “it would be don’t let this happen again. Really be vigilant about who’s running.”

Sakellariou has a great deal of faith in our system, and said there are a lot of worse systems out there, that our system of checks and balances is so unique, that’s what’s going to save us. She wants people to feel empowered because there are a lot of resources out there. She said, “Fundamentally, there are things about this country so precious to me and I’m going to fight for them in any way I can.”

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