WVU Voices Support for International Community at Forum and Vigil

Jan 31, 2017

Laila Sakkal, a senior pre-med student at West Virginia University who was born in Charleston, held back tears as she talked about her Syrian grandmother, who can no longer join Sakkal's family in the United States as planned. On Friday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that temporarily barred non-U.S. citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. - though the details of the order are still unclear. 

The order barred Syrian refugees indefinitely. 

"We’ve been working for a visa for her for to come here and stay with us for over two years. It just got approved last month. We were going to go get her in March because she’s too sick to travel alone," Sakkal said. 

West Virginia University community members gather Monday, Jan. 30, 2017, at Woodburn Circle for a vigil to support those affected by a recent U.S. executive order.
Credit Jesse Wright

On a cold and snowy Monday night, Sakkal and others voiced opposition to the executive order at a vigil at WVU's Woodburn Circle in Morgantown. Students and community members who who weren't affected showed their support for those who were through signs and speeches. At one point, a group of men drove by chanting Trump's name.

The presidents of at least three academic organizations - WVU, West Virginia State University and Marshall University - have pledged their support for international students and faculty affected by the ban. WVU estimates that the order affects about 140 of their students and faculty. 

Before the vigil, WVU held an open forum for concerned community members to ask questions about the executive order to a panel that comprised of WVU Provost Joyce McConnell, immigration attorney Barbara Bower, Vice President for Global Strategy and International Affairs William Brustein, Dean of Students Corey Farris and Muslim Student Association President Sara Berzingi. 

Many who attended the vigil held signs to support those affected by the executive order.
Credit Jesse Wright / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

"You may not know how quickly words spread in an administrative structure. But as soon as the executive order was issued, we were on it," McConnell said. 

Questions ranged from, "Will WVU provide housing to international students who can no longer return home during breaks" (yes, though pricing was unknown at the time) to "Will WVU become a sanctuary campus" (the university will wait and see how events unfold before making that decision).

A community member asks a question of the panelists at an open forum at prior to the vigil.
Credit Jesse Wright / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Several students and faculty asked Bower questions about the order's effect on international travel and employment and education opportunities for international students. She emphasized that the executive order was written so broadly that not even immigration lawyers can say for certain how it will be enforced or which demographics will be affected.

"If you are from any of those seven countries, and you don’t have to travel abroad, I would encourage you to stay here," she said. 

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., released a statement Monday evening opposing the executive order. He wrote that he supports the extreme vetting of immigrants, but that he’s concerned that the executive order was not “properly vetted by senior security advisors and members in the Administration." West Virginia’s Republican senator, Shelley Moore Capito, had not released a statement regarding the executive order as of Monday night. 

In a statement to The Charleston Gazette, Representative Evan Jenkins said that vetting immigrants keeps the country safe, but asked the Trump administration to clarify the parameters of this specific executive order.