Mohamed Faces the Music, and It’s Joyful


Joy and music filled the air as an estimated sixty supporters and members of the media gathered on the front lawn and porch of Ann Arbor Friends Meeting House Tuesday, June 1, to celebrate the freedom of sanctuary guest Mohamed Soumah. They arrived in cars, on foot, on bicycle, and on scooter. It was an impressive number for a quiet Tuesday morning on an Ann Arbor side street.

“Freedom” is a relative word. Most of us don’t on a daily basis fear being detained and deported to a home where you will die soon after you land. Mohamed did when he was ordered out of the country by the former administration.

Deportation Means Inevitable Death

Mohamed is a dialysis patient who requires treatments three times a week. The services that he needs to keep him alive are not available in his home country. Deportation, therefore, would have meant death. Fearing for his life, Mohamed was forced to seek help. He entered sanctuary at Ann Arbor Friends in October 2018. He has lived in fear ever since because

  1. Sanctuary only gave him symbolic protection at best when he was inside the house.
  2. He had to leave the house three times a week for his dialysis treatments.

Saved by Humane Guidelines

But under new guidelines from the administration in Washington, ICE agreed to change Mohamed’s status. On Tuesday, May 25, at a meeting with his lawyer and ICE, Mohamed was given an order of supervision, which requires periodic check-ins but declares him at least temporarily off limits to the evicting eyes of ICE.

This is the relative freedom that Mohamed finally gets to enjoy and that his many supporters, who have grown to care for and love Mohamed as a family member, came to share with him.

We Are a Sanctuary People

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Mary Anne Perrone, a long-time leader of the sanctuary movement in Ann Arbor and a Steering Committee member of Washtenaw Congregational Sanctuary, emcee’d the event: “We are a sanctuary people and today is a very good day. It is a day of announcement and celebration,” she declared to a hearty cheer from the crowd.

Washtenaw Congregational Sanctuary (WCS), sponsor of the event, is the coalition of fourteen religious congregations and two unaffiliated groups in Washtenaw County that has connected the local sanctuary movement with the national scene since early in the previous administration.

An Inspiration and Blessing to Us All

Sheila Johnson, representing Ann Arbor Friends Meeting House, and also a member of the WCS Steering Committee, welcomed the crowd to what has been Mohamed’s home since he entered sanctuary. “Support for Mohamed went far beyond the Quakers,” she noted as she did a shout-out to WCS for leading the effort. “Mohamed was a productive member of society. He was forced to seek sanctuary because of unjust laws. He needs continuing help because he is still ill.” Calling him an inspiration and a blessing to us all, she quoted the Quaker saying, “Let your life speak,” and thanked him for giving them the opportunity to do that.

Mohamed: You Didn’t Forget Me

Mohamed was greeted with extended applause. “What you guys promised me, you did it,” he began. He thanked the community and the press for treating him “like a human, for not forgetting me. All I can offer is thank you from the bottom of my heart. I will never forget.” He acknowledged being scared going for his meeting with ICE last week. “I was in the dark. I don’t wish this on my worst enemy.” But now he feels relief. “It’s good to not have to look over my shoulder.”

We’ll Keep Fighting for You

Sabrina Balgamwalla, director of the Asylum and Immigration Law Clinic at Wayne State University’s Law School, which represents Mohamed, told the crowd how happy she was to be one of a long line of legal advocates who have defended Mohamed. “He has given as much as he has gotten. We were happy to get an order of supervision and happy that executive immigration enforcement priorities have changed.” Turning to Mohamed, she promised, “We’ll keep fighting for you.”

They Were All Immigrants and Refugees

Reverend Doctor Deborah Dean-Ware, pastor of the Church of the Good Shepherd/United Church of Christ, and another WCS Steering Committee member, praised the day as an example of what we can do when we come together. Pastor Deb, as she is known, organized Mohamed’s team of three-times-a-week driving clergy, wearing full vestments, so he would always be protected by religious symbolism outside Quaker House. She reminded us that sanctuary was “also a biblical statement to welcome the stranger, the immigrant, the widow. Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Jesus, they were all immigrants and refugees.”

We Cannot Collaborate with Injustice

Rabbi Josh Whinston, from Temple Beth Emeth, thanked WCS for challenging the community over three years. “Religions love to talk. Acting is harder than words.” And then arose the opportunity to act. “Saving a life takes precedence over nearly every other commandment in Judaism,” he explained. “We couldn’t say no. Our choice was, talk about or do. We cannot collaborate with injustice. When the law of the land is unjust, we must rise up against it.”

By Doing the Right Thing

The final speaker, Reverend Joe Summers, from the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, noted that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all claim Abraham as our spiritual ancestor, and yet, “he was an immigrant” who was dependent on the hospitality of others, making hospitality a sacred obligation for all our traditions. He noted that the sanctuary movement often aids those fleeing violence that our government has caused but has not wanted to own. He thanked Mohamed for being a gracious guest. “Shame on the past administration and all who tolerate this being done to those who come to us needing sanctuary, safety, and healing. By doing the right thing, we recover our strength, vision, hearts, and our humanity.”

Help Still Needed

Emcee Mary Anne Perrone brought the formal presentations to a close by reminding us that Mohamed still needs our support due to his fragile health.

If you are so inspired, please send donations to ICPJ, 1414 Hill St., Ann Arbor, MI. 48104 (memo:  Washtenaw Congregational Sanctuary) or online at www.icpj.net, again designating it to WCS. 

But Bask in Today’s Joy

But for today, we feel joy.

As Mary Anne concluded: “This is such a joyful day.  Bask in the joy; and keep hope in new possibilities as we stay in the struggle for immigrant justice.”

Here’s a link to the video of the press conference: https://fb.watch/5S5iihu7xy/.

* * *

Ken Wachsberger is an author, editor, and book coach as well as a member of the Washtenaw Congregational Sanctuary Steering Committee. He may be reached at ken@kenthebookcoach.com.

Photos courtesy of Richard Stahler-Sholk, also a member of Washtenaw Congregational Sanctuary Steering Committee.

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