Shadi Anis, a dental lab technician from Apple Valley, immigrated from Syria last year with his wife, Ranim, and two children — Aya, 11, and Abdullah, 8 — thanks to a U.S. visa lottery.
The family exchanged the backdrop of a civil war that sparked a refugee crisis for life in the suburbs. On Saturday, they added another first: freely demonstrating with dozens of fellow sign-wielding marchers.
Minnesota Mothers for Syria, organized by a new community group, became the second rally in as many months urging the United States to open its borders to more people fleeing violence around the world.
"To be at such an event, this is new for us as Syrians," Anis said.
The group spread the message "Refugees Welcome" as it departed from Gold Medal Park and filed through the Mill City Farmers Market, where some vendors greeted them with applause. They continued across the Stone Arch Bridge into Father Hennepin Park, where they stood vigil with signs including images from the Syrian refugee crisis.
Malia Remackel, a founding member of the group that organized Saturday's event, continued a local movement sparked last month by a rally inspired by the widely publicized photo of a 3-year-old Syrian boy who drowned off a Turkish beach after escaping with his family.
Remackel and like-minded supporters are calling for quicker background checks to avoid tangling asylum seekers in red tape. She has been in touch with U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and wrote Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, D-Minn. Klobuchar was among those who urged President Obama this spring to take in more of the millions of those displaced from their homes.
"We recognize as citizens, as community members, that we actually do have quite a bit of power to come together and say this isn't our culture," Remackel said Saturday. "We want to help people and invite people in when they're going through a crisis."
University of Minnesota law student Suzan Boulad, a Syrian-American who moved to Minnesota from California two years ago, organized the first demonstration in Minneapolis' Minnehaha Park.
She worked with Remackel's group to organize Saturday's event. Boulad asked demonstrators to tag photos with #RefugeesWelcome. The event was also backed by the American Refugee Committee and the Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria.
"It really sends a message that these people that are fleeing their homes will have a home here," Boulad said.
The Anis family members are reminded of the crisis each day they talk to Shadi Anis' mother, who remains in Syria alone.
Even his two young children have fresh memories of the conflict they barely escaped, a life with no electricity or drinking water.
"They remember the bombing and missiles," Anis said. "It's a crisis on almost all levels of living there."