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People gather at a vigil in support of immigrants held at Coolidge Park on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn., in the wake of President Donald J. Trump's executive order on immigration. The vigil, titled "We All Belong," was held in partnership with Bridge Refugee Services.

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Over a thousand people join candlelight vigil for refugees

As the sun fell Wednesday evening, Coolidge Park morphed into a sea of candles held by more than a thousand demonstrators who came to protest President Donald Trump's recent executive order halting refugees from entering the country until late May.

The vigil was organized in partnership with Bridge Refugee Services Inc. as a symbol of solidarity with those affected by the travel ban. Bridge is the sole refugee resettlement nonprofit agency in Chattanooga, and employees said it represents 20 refugees — half of whom are children — from three different countries who were in the final stages of transitioning to their new lives here, but now find themselves waiting until the ban is lifted.

An Iraqi woman at Wednesday's event named Nidhal said her son is one of those affected. Speaking through translator Nada Marchus, Nidhal said her son was scheduled to arrive in Chattanooga tomorrow but is stranded in Istanbul, despite having worked as a translator with the American military in Iraq for several years.

"He had his ticket to come to America tomorrow," she said. "He's been waiting three years."

She said he has a wife and two children, and their family members who already live in Chattanooga have been working overtime to help pay for the transition.

Marina Peshterianu, associate director for Bridge, said the vigil was set up in part to show support for families like Nidhal's who are directly affected by the president's order.

"These people are the most vulnerable in the world," she said. "They don't have a choice. This is their only hope of normality for them and their families."

Bridge settles a little more than 100 refugees in Chattanooga every year, most after spending multiple years clearing the hurdles of the stringent vetting process. All of that has been put on hold for four months, much to Peshterianu's disappointment.

"You don't turn your back on people in need. This is not us," she said.

Several of the organizers of Wednesday night's event also helped with the Women's March in Chattanooga two weeks ago. Sara Scott said they all kept in touch after the march and have resolved to keep pushing against an administration with which they largely find themselves at odds.

"There are so many issues right now that we are passionate about," Scott said as he stared out at the crowd. "We just threw up an event on Facebook and, before we knew it, hundreds of people had started following it."

She said one of the people who had been asked to speak pulled out at the last minute for fear of reprisal against their family members, who still live abroad, but that only galvanized Scott and the other organizers.

"We wanted to share a message of hope and unity," she said. "This is what America stands for."

After hearing from speakers including immigrants from Pakistan and Colombia, the crowd broke into a chorus of "This Little Light of Mine."

The crowd dissipated about an hour after the event began, about 6:30 p.m., but not before receiving instructions from the event's organizers to get in touch with local representatives to drive home their disapproval of the ban. Volunteers also handed out contact lists with information about how to reach those representatives.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn. came out in support of the executive order on Monday, saying in a statement, ""Many foreign governments, like Syria, are falling apart. This is hindering our ability to properly vet those who wish to enter our country. President Trump's Executive Order wisely presses pause on the process until we are confident about these individuals' backgrounds."

Melody Shekari judged the event a success. A child of first-generation immigrants, she unsuccessfully challenged Fleischmann, for his seat this fall. She said the demonstrators represented a full spectrum of voices that could prompt real change.

"I just thought it was beautiful," she said. "At least we're talking about it. And clearly we care if we can get this many people together."

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.

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