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The Tallahassee Uyghur Resettlement Project

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The Uyghurs are an ethnic group of circa 20 million persons in Xinjiang Province in the extreme west of China. The fact that they are Muslims and have aspirations to independence from China have led to their being treated in a very hostile manner by the Chinese government.

Substantial numbers have fled from China as a result of persecution. 22 men who had been in a refugee camp in Afghanistan when the allied invasion commenced in the fall of 2001 were picked up and taken to Guantánamo.

Under international law the United States cannot repatriate persons to countries which in which it is believed they will tortured. Five of the 22 were subsequently released and sent to Albania after several years of incarceration.

In late August 2007 there was a hearing before Judge Urbina on the habeas corpus petitioners of the 17 Uyghurs remaining at Guantánamo. The judge indicated that he believed he had the power to release the Uyghurs into the United States as a part of his habeas jurisdiction.

At that point realizing that the Uyghurs might be released into the States, an APB went out on the GTMO habeas lawyers’ listserv asking for communities that could settle some of the men.

In Tallahassee it was a natural. The community had experience in settling refugees in the past. I had been deeply involved as a GTMO habeas lawyer, knew the general story of the Uyghurs and had a sense of the people to contact to put together a plan.

I called Brant Copeland, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church. He had convened an interdenominational forum in the days after 9/11 and it was clear that he was the kind of person who would be invaluable in putting together a plan. He spoke of the value of multiple clergy involvement to set the proper social context. I suggested that he do that in writing. As the co-chair of Tallahassee Interfaith Clergy, a group of the more progressive religious leaders, he said he could email them. We drafted up a statement in which they would express welcome to the Uyghurs pledge to urge their congregations to do the same. In a few days he had 6-8 signatures.

I then turned to Salah Bakhashwin, a Saudi national who had lived in Tallahassee for 25 years and who had been my Arabic translator with my first GTMO client. He has a concern for human rights generally and had become passionate about justice for those at GTMO. The Islamic Center of Tallahassee, the larger of the two mosques in the city, was the logical spiritual home for Uyghurs, and it was clear that Salah was the way into that community. He was great. He is a member of the Shura Council, the seven-person governing board of the Islamic Center. He reached out to the Council and broached the idea.

In the meantime Brant wrote a sermon telling the story of the Uyghurs urging his own congregation support the project. Exh. 1.

He also followed up his email to the clergy with calls to a number of recipients who had not responded to the initial email. He ended up with 19 signatures. Exh. 2.

Both the sermon and the clergy statement proved important in the process.

In the meantime I had written a first draft of what was to become the Uyghur Settlement Plan.

Salah was enthusiastic but it was important to get broader support from the Islamic Center. I was invited to meet with the Shura Council. I took with me the clergy statement and the sermon which Brant was delivering as I met with the Council. The response of the Shura Council was very positive.

During the meeting and after several members told of slights and injustices that they and others in the congregation had suffered solely because of their Islamic faith. Some of the injustices were very substantial. It was a good lesson to me to be reminded of the isolation and ostracism which Muslims often face in the States.

The sermon and clergy statement were very valuable in the exchange at this meeting. It allowed the Islamic Center to know that much of the rest of the community “had their back” as many Muslims are understandably skittish about high visibility Islamic activities.

The Islamic Center made a great contribution. They found housing near the Center. They promised specific appropriate jobs and pledged money. All these were integral parts of what became the Uyghur Settlement Plan. Exh. 3. The plan was reviewed by Rev. John Lown who had three years of full-time refugee settlement experience and agreed to sit on the Steering Committee.

All three documents were transmitted to the lawyers for the Uyghurs. They liked the sermon so much that they had it translated into Uyghur to be distributed to their clients at GTMO and others. They were very surprised and impressed at the outpouring of support by the clergy, especially in the Deep South. They liked the plan and stressed how detailed and nuanced it was.

Frankly, it seemed that they were amazed that a “little old Southern city” could respond in this way on very short notice. I attribute this to a couple of things, bearing in mind that I hold all the lawyers for the Uyghurs in extremely high regard. First, people in big cities probably do not have a full appreciation for the way in which little cities can be mobilized. Long time residents tend to know exactly which people to contact to make things happen. Second, there is probably a general lack of appreciation by those not living in the South that there are communities in the South that are progressive and not xenophobic.

In preparation for the momentous hearing of October 7, the lawyers for the Uyghurs decided to present the settlement plans for settlement for the 17 Uyghurs to the court. The Lutheran refugee agency for the greater Washington DC area was to take 14 and Tallahassee 3. The plans of both groups were proffered to Judge Urbina and became part of the record.

Judge Urbina in a stunningly courageous order ruled that the Uyghurs could be settled in the US. I have never witnessed more judicial courage in 43 years at the bar.

Sadly, that order was stayed and was reversed on appeal.