If anyone in the audience during last week's forum on immigration at Temple Beth Israel could relate to what speakers were saying, it was Georgia Leonce of Haverhill.

Leonce listened as speaker after speaker discussed the importance of organizing and fighting back against the injustice of the Trump Administration's policies of separating mothers and children, husbands and their wives, in an effort to stem illegal immigration.

That's because Leonce's husband Jacob was recently deported, leaving her to raise their two daughters alone.

"It's painful, very painful," Leonce said after the nearly two-hour discussion, which was attended by about 50 people. "It's sad that America has become this place."

But she was there at the behest of Heleena Mathew, a community organizer for the Merrimack Valley Project. Together, they go to forums and reach out to the immigrant community to help people cope with the waves of detentions and deportations led by ICE, the government agency responsible for holding and forcibly removing immigrants from the United States.

"Out of all my pain I have found a voice for all the women, moms and wives," Leonce said.

Mathew, one of the main speakers at the Thursday evening discussion, said aside from deportations, the policies of the Trump Administration have been hurtful in many other ways.

 

Mathew, an immigrant herself who came to America from India in 1999, said that being an undocumented immigrant in Lawrence is fraught with danger.

 

"People who were undocumented in Lawrence would not call the police if anything happened because of the risk," said Mathew. "People were struggling with finding jobs that wouldn't abuse them or steal their wages, people were struggling with drivers licenses, sending their kids to school because they weren't eligible for scholarships. There were so many things. So, we started this whole commitment to immigrant justice."

 

 

The panel discussion, titled "Hidden Stories: Immigration, Beyond the Headlines," included numerous first-hand accounts of families marked for deportation trying desperately to stay together. The forum also presented ways in which people can stand in solidarity with their immigrant neighbors.

 

Rachie Lewis, the senior synagogue organizer from the Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston, said that after the 2016 election there was a large move in the greater Boston Jewish community to take a stand with their immigrant neighbors.

"All kinds of faith organizations came together with congregations to say we are going to open up our doors and we are going to be partners in this work," said Lewis.

She said she was involved in a sanctuary situation in her home community, where a family has been living in a church for 14 months.

"The feeling that I am left with in seeing some of this work is just amazement at peoples' strength," Lewis said.

Cantor Vera Broekhuysen, a North Andover resident and member of Temple Emanu-El in Haverhill, said she got involved with immigrant work after the 2016 election, when she said she felt "stunned."

"You don't need another reason other than being human to deserve to live your life," Broekhuysen said. 

In July, Broekhuysen and 25 other Jewish clergy took a trip to San Diego for immigrant work. While there, she and others visited a women's shelter. She met women who were only able to connect with their children through Skype. It made her realize "how impossibly difficult it is for a parent to lose access to their children, and have no idea when they're going to hold them again."

She added: "This country that has promised haven has now taken that promise and shredded it."

 

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