Crowd packs Milford's Lights for Liberty vigil

Between 150 and 200 people gathered on the Milford Green July 12 for one of hundreds of “Lights for Liberty” vigils organized around the country to protest refugee detention centers and the treatment of refugees.

Cynthia Wolfe Boynton, a local author and political activist, organized the Milford vigil, which included music, about two hours of speeches and then the lighting of candles or LED lights. “We can’t stay silent,” Boynton said as she kicked off the vigil.

She said the United States is not a country that puts children in cages or takes children from their parents, and she urged those in attendance to speak out against immigration policies and practices.

A number of speakers, including Will Kneerim, from Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, pointed out that the United States is a country built by immigrants. He said immigrants work to strengthen the economy, and welcoming people who are fleeing other countries is the right thing to do for humanitarian reasons.

“It is very possible to listen to asylum claims and process them,” Kneerim said, before introducing Gladys Mwilelo, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mwilelo said she fled her home with her family following a massacre in her village when she was just two years old, and after 13 years living as refugees in Burundi, she and her family came to the United States.

“All we wanted was to be safe, to get an education, for my parents to be able to work,” she said. “We just wanted a normal family.”

Today, she is a U.S. citizen attending college, and she thinks the United States should be doing more for refugees and must treat refugees with decency and dignity.

“It was hard to live in a refugee camp in such a poor country as Burundi,” she said, “but we knew people were trying to make sure we had enough food, we were together as a family and we had two tents for my family to rest at night.

“The country we were in was very, very poor, but they still took us in and did their best,” she said.

“It is not a crime to be an asylum seeker,” Mwilelo added.

Shatha Khashab said she is a first generation American, but sometimes she is treated like she does not belong here. If people are to judge others, she said, it should be based on their morality and values, and not because of what they look like or what they wear.

Several clergy talked about asylum seekers and how their stories mirror stories in the Bible, that remind man to be kind to strangers and to offer them hospitality. But he said Americans don’t need Bible stories to tell them that what is happening at the southern border “is not acceptable.”

The Rev. Kristina Hansen from Mary Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church, which was recently the target of a hate crime because of its public acceptance and welcoming of the LGBT community, told attendees they should find out what their churches or clubs are doing to make a difference, and to organize events and actions to help the refugee situation. She, like Boynton, urged people to contact their representatives in Washington to demand immigration reform.

“As Christians we are not about erecting walls but building bridges,” Hansen said

State Sen. James Maroney said citizens need to bring about the change they want to see.

“We need to all get together and repair the world one act of kindness at a time,” Maroney said.

Milford’s Poet Laureate Mick Theebs also talked about the need to step up. He penned a poem for the vigil, a poem that noted “the not so silent sentinels who can’t stand idly by.”