The Brilliance of Using Pillowcases to #GiveRefugeesRest

A human rights campaign to protest Islamophobic rhetoric sent message-scrawled pillowcases to 31 governors who expressed support for refugee bans. And more are on the way.
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Anthony Grimes, director of campaigns and strategy at the Fellowship of Reconciliation, with his pillowcase. Photo courtesy of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

It’s a message of compassion, scribbled in marker on a pillowcase: #GiveRefugeesRest.

“Our goal is that states across the nation would change their orientation toward refugees.”

This pillowcase symbolizes the peace Syrian refugees need. The more than 4 million people fleeing the ongoing war in Syria constitute the world’s largest group of refugees. Many have been seeking asylum in countries such as the United States and Canada, while others have escaped into the neighboring countries of Greece, Turkey, and Iraq, often risking their lives in the process.

The Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith organization established in the early 1900s, is urging people to join its campaign and send the message-scrawled pillowcase and a letter to their governor or to U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan—after, of course, taking a photo with the pillowcase and posting on social media.

Last week, the Fellowship sent a pillowcase and letter to 31 governors who expressed support for refugee bans in their states, following the terrorist attacks in Paris last year. “Our goal is that states across the nation would change their orientation toward refugees, that we would no longer see executive orders issued against refugees,” says Anthony Grimes, the Fellowship’s director of Campaigns and Strategy.

Bainbridge Islanders for Inclusion, a group in a town near Seattle, has taken the Fellowship’s campaign a step further by including Central American refugees, a statement against recent mass deportations.

The Department of Homeland Security announced its plans earlier this year to find and deport hundreds of undocumented Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans—many of whom are mothers and children fleeing gang violence and crime in their home countries. After much backlash against the deportations from Democrats in Congress, Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday announced that the United States would expand its Refugee Admissions program to help such families immigrate legally and safely.

Martha Ridings with the pillowcases that were sent out to 31 governors across the country. Photo courtesy of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. 

Bainbridge Island residents are still planning ways to localize the campaign, whether by including pillowcases in an art walk or throwing pillowcase-making parties. Meanwhile, the Fellowship may include Central American refugees in its efforts, too. Grimes says the connection between both refugee groups is pretty simple: “It’s racial. … What America is responding to right now is very much a fear of a darkening of America.”

Some Bainbridge Islanders recognize this fear: In 1942, it was about a changing America—a more Japanese America.

Bainbridge Island, home to an engaged Japanese community, is where the U.S. military first rounded up Japanese Americans to send to concentration camps. It is also one of the few places where a local newspaper, the Bainbridge Review, and many residents were openly against the camps .

Clarence Moriwaki is the founder and president of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial Association. He tells the story of March 30, 1942, when the island’s Japanese Americans boarded the ferry to Seattle: “Nobody knew where they were going. Nobody knew how long they’d be gone, or if they’d even get to come back. It was a frightening thing.”

She’s not letting fear and hysteria sway her and her community.

Meanwhile, their neighbors looked after their farms and homes, sometimes traveling to visit Japanese American families and bring them anything they needed. “It’s something we celebrate on Bainbridge Island,” Moriwaki adds, “that people stood up for the Constitution, and, even beyond the Constitution, they cared for their friends and neighbors. That’s a legacy that Bainbridge Island should be proud of.”

The motto of the island’s Japanese American Exclusion Memorial, built in 2011, is “Let it not happen again,” or Nidoto Nai Yoni in Japanese.

Today, that legacy lives on—not just through the island’s memorial, but through its residents. Marsha Cutting is one of them. A member of Bainbridge Islanders for Inclusion, she’s been advocating the addition of Central American refugees to the Fellowship of Reconciliation campaign. She’s not letting fear and hysteria sway her and her community. They already know what happens when they do.

“For some, it’s something they read out of a history book,” Cutting says. “Here, we know people who were taken away. It’s not an abstract idea to us. It’s real.”

If you want to contribute your own pillowcase, visit www.giverefugeesrest.com.