Syrian-American mayor signs his own executive order – to welcome migrants

The Syria-born mayor of the small town of Prospect Park, New Jersey, knows what it is to be a refugee. He was one himself.

Mohamed Khairullah, the Syrian-born mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, defies president Donald Trump's travel ban with his own executive order, declaring migrants and refugees are welcome in his town. Courtesy Mohamed Khairullah
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WASHINGTON, DC // In the small town of Prospect Park, New Jersey, the mayor is going further than most to state his opposition to president Donald Trump’s travel ban. He’s signed his own executive order banning the implementation of the presidential directive and declaring his town a safe haven for immigrants and refugees.

And the mayor should know how vulnerable refugees feel. Mohammed Khairullah is a Syrian American and was once a refugee himself.

“I wanted my city to be an example of tolerance and to inspire other cities and lead them to do the same,” he said.

Born in Aleppo in 1975, Mr Khairulla’s family fled persecution during what he calls “the first uprising” in Syria against the current president’s father, Hafez Al Assad.

Amid the mass executions taking place, the family feared for their safety as opponents of Al Assad.

Mr Khairulla’s father first took the family to Saudi Arabia in about 1980, where they lived until they emigrated to the United States in 1991, when the future Prospect Park mayor was 16.

While Mr Khairulla was still at university, he began volunteering in local hospitals and fire departments.

“I was involved in my town in many different ways and [was] already dedicated to serving my community even before I decided to enter political life,” he said.

In 2001, the year Mr Khairulla received his American citizenship and earned his master’s degree in education administration, he stood for election to the Prospect Park city council and won.

“I couldn’t let the issues that were affecting my town rest and just sit and watch from afar, so I decided to try and be part of the city council,” he said.

Three years later, in 2004, he was elected mayor of Prospect Park – the first from an ethnic minority – and has been re-elected three times since.

When the Syrian revolution started back in 2011 and then escalated into a deadly conflict, Mr Khairullah was reminded of his own family’s suffering years earlier.

“I had to help the people of Syria, so I decided to help them through humanitarian channels,” he said.

Between 2013 and 2015, he made seven trips to Aleppo, his native city, and the city of Idlib, taking humanitarian aid.

When the Trump administration brought in the travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries (reducing the number to six in a second executive order) – and blocked refugees from Syria indefinitely – Mr Khairullah decided he could not stand by. He felt he had to assure his city that everyone was safe in Prospect Park – by mayoral decree.

The mayor’s executive order was signed with the same fanfare as the president’s. Mr Khairullah held the document aloft with as much pride as Mr Trump did when brandishing his first version of the travel ban on January 27 of this year.

“I consider myself part of the resistance against unfair politics and tyranny. I respect the office of the president, but I don’t have to agree with all his policies. And as a mayor, my office is also executive,” Mr Khairullah declared.

“This law would have torn families apart and I could not let it happen without taking serious action, so I had to assure the people of Prospect Park who trust me that they will always feel safe here. They can come to us for help without the fear of us acting as federal government agents and turning them in.”

US attorney-general Jeff Sessions warned on Monday that so-called "sanctuary cities" turning a blind eye to illegal immigrants could jeopardise billions in federal funding. He demanded they do more to turn people who are in the country illegally over to the federal authorities for deportation.

But Mr Khairullah said such threats avoided the real problems in America.

“While average Americans are worried about losing their health care, their effective tax rates and crumbling roads, our federal government seems to be focused on picking fights with towns that don’t agree with the president,” he said. “Washington needs to straighten out its priorities.”

Throughout Mr Khairullah’s 11 years as mayor of Prospect Park (population, 5,900), his hard work and popularity have earned him a reputation as the most successful mayor in the state of New Jersey.

“He (Mr Khairulla) changed a lot in the city. There is a lot of new infrastructure – that’s why he was elected four times,” said city council member Adnan Zakaria, adding that this was proof the mayor is effective.

Mr Khairullah has also encouraged others from ethnic minorities to run for office and there are now Hispanic and African-American members on Prospect Park’s six-seat city council.

“I take people’s problems and complaints very seriously,” the mayor said. “I care, I listen and respond. I never make their issues marginal and I do make every effort to reach out to everyone.”

“The United States is a country of migrants and refugees,” he added. “And it is exactly what makes America great.”