Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The Supreme Court on June 25 okayed the Trump administration’s policy of limiting the number of asylum seekers in the country by denying them court appeal rights.

That decision came just days after the worldwide marking of the United Nations-sponsored World Refugee Day, June 20. And it comes after President Trump spent the past three years aiming to reduce total refugee levels to zero.

Most likely to feel the impact locally is the Arlington-based Ethiopian Community Development Council Inc., the refugee-support and State Department-authorized transition agency with offices just off Columbia Pike. I was alerted that this sub-sector of Arlington’s diverse population is among those hit hardest by the coronavirus lockdown. So I logged on last week to several Zoom conversations with the nonprofit’s far-flung constituents.

Today’s immigration landscape is a far cry from the 1970s when Arlingtonians (mostly) opened our doors to refugees from the Vietnam War. And the current push to restrict America’s benefits to those born here distances us from our classic international role as a beacon for victims legitimately escaping violence and tyranny.

“The current policy of the Trump administration with regard to refugees represents a departure from the foundational ideals that established this country as a place of refuge for those that are in need of protection and safety,” said the statement from Tsehaye Teferra, president and CEO of the donation-supported council. “We are disheartened by the policies of the current administration.”

Teferra founded the counsel in 1983, focusing at first on Ethiopians in the Washington area, but eventually expanding to all refugee groups for help in resettlement, languages, employment and education.

The views of individuals the council assembled for World Refugee Day add the human factor to the policy debate. These people came here over the past four years from such trouble hotspots as Syria, Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda. And they were eager to describe how Covid-19 and racism have affected their coping mechanisms and hopes.

“Put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” said Abeera, who grew up in Somalia but now lives in Malaysia. She read from her children’s story illustrating how to “get outside your box and learn about other people.”

Adamou, zooming from Maxwell, North Carolina, described his organizing to “encourage refugee engagement.” His colleague Noel, in Washington at the multi-denominational Church World Service, stressed the importance of “a narrative with voices of the refugees themselves.”

Abdo, a Syrian now in Colorado, spoke of the “social isolation” of refugees who lack a social network. The only positive thing about the coronavirus, he said, “is you have time to spend with your children, to teach them what’s going on in society.”

Nezia, a Burundian now in Baltimore, described ECDC’s Emergency Response Fund for refugees who’ve “lost jobs and can’t pay their bills.” Individuals who donated this month were entered in a raffle; prizes included jewelry from Ethiopia and Malaysia.

“Most people are not new to the country, so they already have a network,” Nezia said. “But when you support refugees, you are supporting yourself, because they will grow to be your doctors and teachers.


Political Arlington mourned the passing of retired naval aviator Jim Pebley, a longtime Republican spokesman, guiding light at the Arlington Civic Federation and a tireless fund-raiser to seal the county’s relationship to the Navy ship the USS Arlington.

Pebley, 69, died June 23 after 20 months of battling cancer at his retirement residence in Wake Forest, N.C. The Navy, I’m told by his ally, the retired county treasurer Frank O’Leary, has agreed to Pebley’s wish to have his ashes buried at sea. The Arlington’s crew will handle it.