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For some immigrants, the insurrection hit home

The US Capitol
Jonothan Colman


The armed mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol building on January 6 shocked many Americans, including those who migrated to this country seeking refuge from instability and violence. 

Watching the insurrection on the news, a man who is seeking asylum in the U.S. from Togo said he saw in his mind, flashes of the violence that forced him to leave his home country.

Raising a mangled finger which he said is the result of torture at the hands of the government, the man, who is a resident of the Detroit-based nonprofit Freedom House and asked not to be named due to the ongoing nature of his asylum proceedings, said he never imagined that such violence could strike the United States. 

For some of those who left hardship to make America their home, the insurrection felt personal. Hanan Yahya immigrated to the U.S. from Yemen along with her family as a toddler. She described the infiltration of the halls of government as a “betrayal” of the promise of America -- one they believed in so much that her parents named their youngest child "America" after their adopted homeland. 

And yet, the 27-year-old community organizer said, she saw in the relatively lax response of law enforcement to the rioters at the Capitol, proof that America does not embrace all of its citizens equally.

“We've been on the receiving end of all this Islamophobia, all of this hatred, this bigotry, this double standard,” Yahya said. “And so when you see [the way rioters were initially treated] and then you see the way that Yemeni-Americans have struggled in their communities to establish their voice, establish power, and work really hard to contribute and be a part of the American society, the fabric of the American society -- that's where the double standard exists.” 

Credit Marcus Lyon / Detroit Project
Detroit Project

Other immigrants said they have witnessed shades of the sort violence enacted by the rioters in their own lives. Seydi Sarr is the founder of the African Bureau for Immigration and Social Affairs, or ABISA, a Detroit-based community organization. She was appointed to the Michigan Black Leadership Advisory Council by Governor Whitmer in November. Sarr arrived in the U.S. in 2003 from Senegal and says her experiences disproved the beliefs in America she had before arriving. 

“When you live at the intersection of being a black African immigrant, Muslim woman, and single mother for the longest, you understand that the tenet of democracy, this American dream of pursuing your life and stuff like that, not apply to you,” Sarr said. “My everyday life in America is not, you know, violets and roses and flowers. You struggle at dismantling and fighting and asserting yourself, and all the time trying to let people understand that your humanity is valuable and the color of your skin should not define what your humanity should be.” 

But there are also some immigrants who feel that they are more threatened because of their political identities than their personal identities. Jazmine Early is community leader and a member of the group Latinos for Trump - Michigan. “Now, if you are a minority as me, they will attack you because you had a political issue; I had been called white supremacist and I'm Hispanic with brown skin,” she said. 

Early said that the hardening of Capitol buildings following that breach has been an eerie reminder of scenes from South America. Originally from Colombia, Early said seeing so many massive tanks and military personnel around the state Capitol in Lansing over the weekend reminded her of the military’s suppressive role across that continent. She said she hopes that the tensions that mounted through the election season will cease after the swearing in of President-elect Joe Biden, and said she isn’t concerned about more violence. “I don’t have fear,” Early said. 

That desire to put the upheaval of the last few weeks behind them and return to the stability that they had sought in America in the first place is shared by Yemeni-American Hanan Yahra. “No one should have to live in fear in their own country,” she said. And for the immigrants who have made America their home, that feeling seems to carry extra more weight.

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Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Radio's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.