HARRISONBURG — Nadina Pupic was 11 when her family came to the U.S. fleeing the Bosnian War and genocide.
Pupic, who lives in Grottoes, said the trip was “long and exhausting,” but her family was able to stay together through the process.
“I have been reflecting on my experience a lot lately, comparing it to the scared children that are locked in cages around the country,” she said. “We were welcomed and accepted with open arms to this community. ... It appears that things are different in 2018.
“I feel guilty. So guilty that I was privileged enough to experience a genocide which meant that I was welcomed into this country. What a silly, silly feeling.”
Pupic spoke to about 300 people at a rally on Court Square as one of several similar events across the country called “families belong together.”
The rallies were motivated by accounts of children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. Organizers hoped to press President Donald Trump’s administration to reunite the families quickly.
In Harrisonburg, protesters held signs saying “no human is illegal” while others held upside down American flags to symbolize distress.
Alleyn Harned, chairman of the Harrisonburg Democratic Committee, said the administration’s “new policy” created “chaos” and a “horrible nightmare.”
“Parents should not be criminally prosecuted for doing what all parents do which is bring their children to safety,” he said.
John Schaldach, an organizer for Harrisonburg Indivisible, said the policy was inspired by white nationalism, which is on the ballot in November in terms of “explicit white nationalist,” Corey Stewart. Stewart is running against U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.
“Putting Democrats in office is not going to suddenly solve white supremacy,” he said. “But, until you remove the people from power who explicitly back white supremacy, who tolerate it, we will get nowhere.”
Michael Snell-Feikema said people are hoping to escape Central America’s high homicide rate coupled with a justice system that rarely convicts murderers.
Pupic said she sympathizes with the families that are risking it all to reach the U.S.
“My family was the lucky one to be counted among the displaced and not the dead,” she said. “And that is 100 percent attributed to the will and perseverance of my parents who wanted nothing else but for us to survive.”
Harrisonburg Councilman Chris Jones, a Democrat seeking re-election this fall, said locking people up “isn’t new.” He compared the situation to slavery and Japanese-American internment camps during World War II.
“It is the unfortunate American way to lock people up,” he said. “We shouldn’t be surprised that they’re tearing children away from mothers and fathers as they cross the border because we’ve already locked up all their daddies in jail. We’ve already been separating families.”
Sal Romero, a Democratic council candidate, said he can’t imagine being separated from his daughters. He said separating families was “unAmerican.”
“This is a country I do not recognize and this practice is one that no one should tolerate,” he said. “I don’t believe any of us ever thought that we would experience this tragedy in our country.”