Khizr Khan, the Gold Star father of a fallen Muslim-American soldier and immigrant who created media buzz when he condemned Donald Trump last year at the Democratic National Convention, spoke out for the rights of immigrants at Patriot Plaza in Towson on Wednesday.
Khan, an American citizen born in Pakistan, delivered an impassioned 20-minute speech at a rally, which was dubbed as “A Call for Unity,” organized by the Baltimore County government.
Khan told the crowd of more than 100 the story of a retired Jewish army nurse who served in World War II and recently wrote him and his wife, Ghazala, a 26-page letter. In the letter, Khan said the nurse implored him to continue to make his voice heard so the atrocities she witnessed in Nazi Germany would never happen again.
“She said in that letter, ‘Had there been enough courageous and brave people in Europe to speak against World War II, the atrocities that were committed against my Jewish brothers and sisters could have been avoided,’” Khan said. “Always continue to speak.”
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat, honored Khan with a citation and proclaimed July 12 as Unity Day in the county.
Khan said the occasion marked his 128th public speaking appearance since last summer’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, where Hillary Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination for president.
When Khan was asked to speak at the convention, he initially had some reservations. His friends advised him not to do so because of the negative publicity they thought he would receive.
But he said the “bigoted words” then-Republican presidential candidate Trump used to describe the immigrant community and the worries children had of their parents being rounded up and deported convinced him to speak.
The Khans’ son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan, was killed by a suicide car bombing explosion in Iraq in 2004.
“This is our calling. This is the time this nation needs us,” Khan said. “These children need us. They have to have a voice.”
Kamenetz, who is Jewish, said he was moved by Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention and that it sparked the memory of his own family’s immigration story.
In 1908, Kamenetz told the audience, his grandfather, David, escaped czarist persecution in the town of Zhager (now a part of Russia). David immigrated to the United States as an 18-year-old with less than $1 in his pocket, no English skills and little education “but a suitcase full of hope and courage,” Kamenetz said.
“He worked hard, educated his children, practiced his religion and paid his taxes and lived the American dream,” Kamenetz added.
Kamenetz, who is considering a run for governor, said he’s been motivated by the increased fear he has noticed in the county’s immigrant community after Trump was elected president in November.
Kamenetz touted an executive order he issued in April formalizing county policies that prohibit police officers and other county employees from asking individuals about their immigration status. The order also states the county jail cannot hold individuals for immigration reasons unless there is a court-ordered warrant signed by a judicial official.
“From his first day in office, President Trump unleashed a reign terror against the immigrant and religious community in this country,” Kamenetz said. “As a result, hate is on the rise, and people are scared.”
Members of the audience showered Kamenetz, Khan and other speakers with applause, twirled flags and rang cowbells to show their agreement.
The speakers’ call for unity, as demonstrated by the repeated messages of “our victory is in our unity,” resonated with a diverse crowd.
Among the groups that co-hosted the event was the Baltimore Jewish Council, which puts on 20 to 30 interfaith programs and dialogue events per year. Others co-hosts included Amigos of Baltimore County, the Baltimore County NAACP, the Greater Baltimore Muslim Council and the Islamic Society of Baltimore. Kamenetz and the Baltimore County Human Relations Commission also helped put on the event.
Madeline Suggs, director of public affairs at the Baltimore Jewish Council, told the JT afterward that immigration hits close to home for her because her grandfather was a victim of hate incidents. She said he grew up in Jonestown in Southeast Baltimore and that when he traveled to northern parts of the city, he would have rocks thrown at him and be told to leave.
“Hearing stories like that growing up and hearing stories now about folks feeling unwelcome in their own city really strikes a chord that we want to be a better community,” Suggs said.
She said it is one of the reasons the BJC tapped Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation to join other spiritual leaders to deliver a prayer to close out the ceremonies.
In her prayer, Sachs-Kohen said the first chapters of the Torah note that all human beings are a reflection of God’s holiness and created in a divine image that should be celebrated.
“The image of the divine is not just look like the face we see in the mirror each morning,” Sachs-Kohen said. “Remind us that we can only be spirits of your holiness if we understand that the person standing next to us is a reflection of that holiness as well.
“God of our mothers and our fathers remind us, because it seems as though too many of us have forgotten. Remind us, God, and help us to remember that we are all your creations.”