The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After El Paso, the ‘send her back’ chant echoes to some as a prelude to murder

President Trump arrives to speaks at a campaign rally in Greenville, N.C., on July 17. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

GREENVILLE, N.C. — Weeks before the bullets of El Paso, the words of Greenville echoed through this small city on the North Carolina coastal plain — and across the nation.

Samar Badwan, a Greenville resident, watched that day as 8,000 neighbors and fellow citizens jammed a local basketball arena to serenade the president with a chant of “Send her back,” a response to Trump’s insistence that a Muslim, Somali American congresswoman should “go back” to the land of her birth.

“As we say in the South, he’s stirring the pot,” Badwan remembers thinking. “And that’s a very dangerous game. People are listening.”

That visit — and that chant — continues to reverberate loudly here nearly a month later, particularly for those such as Badwan, who see themselves as targets of a campaign to whip up xenophobia and hate.

After this month’s El Paso shooting, in which 22 people were killed by a gunman who parroted the president’s warnings about an “invasion” of immigrants, the words carry a particularly ominous resonance: as a prelude to murder.

El Paso residents protested President Trump's visit to the city Aug. 7, after a mass shooting killed 22 people at a local Walmart. (Video: Melissa Macaya, Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

“In my heart, I knew what his message was going to be,” Badwan said, as she sipped sweet tea at her local Starbucks. “I didn’t know the extent to which it would impact our small town.”

Before that day, Badwan never had to question whether her hijab was incompatible with her Southern drawl. She never had to fear that her North Carolina neighbors might hold her Palestinian heritage against her. She never had to think that in Greenville — a city she has been proud to call home for 30 years, raising three children along the way — her faith would mark her as an unwanted outsider.

Then the president came to town.

An international city

Greenville, a university city of just under 100,000, touts itself as diverse and inclusive, but it was introduced to much of the country through a chant condemned by the Anti-Defamation League as “the sound of intolerance.”

A recent study by University of North Texas researchers found a 226 percent surge in reported hate crimes in counties that hosted 2016 Trump campaign rallies when compared with those that did not. Police in Greenville say they have seen no increase in reported hate speech or crimes since the president’s July 17 visit.

But to immigrants, refugees and others who don’t fit neatly into some people’s ideas of what an American should look like, the appearance has spawned fears that the president’s words could be used as a pretext for violence.

The crowd’s chant has also prompted painful reflection: Was the hostility on display at the rally new for Greenville? Or was it here all along, just waiting to be activated?

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Heidi Serrano, who was born in Guatemala but who has lived in Greenville her entire adult life, has reluctantly concluded the latter. She now wonders if some of her neighbors and co-workers truly want her here.

The Fix’s Eugene Scott analyzes how President Trump’s recent attacks on Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) play into his 2020 reelection strategy. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

“Trump has allowed people to say what’s in their hearts,” said Serrano, 39. “That’s been the hardest part for me. You think you know somebody.”

As Serrano spoke, a diverse group of children shrieked with delight as they bounded up and down an inflatable slide. Mothers wearing hijabs casually bantered, while dads toggled between English and Spanish as they led their children on a tour of a firetruck. African American and white families shared barbecue, fresh off the grill.

It was National Night Out, a chance for police officers to mingle with residents, and the idyllic scene at Greenville’s Jaycee Park reflected the message advertised in welcome signs posted on the outskirts of the city: “We are building an inclusive community.”

Many residents say, on the whole, that is what it is.

Badwan, who came here as a teenager and has never left, said no one in Greenville has ever told her to go back to where she came from. (A Palestinian American who pronounces her first name “summer” to make it easier on non-Arab tongues, she was born in Washington.)

Some people do tell her Greenville is too small, too isolated from big-city attractions — a minor island of urbanity in a sea of farms and fields.

But Badwan, who teaches autistic students and serves as an Arabic interpreter for the local school district, couldn’t imagine a better place to live.

“I do a lot of traveling,” she said, “but there’s nothing like coming back here.”

Greenville boasts a high-quality state university, top-notch hospital and thriving arts district. Everything she might need is within a short drive, and the community’s leaders, she said, support the city’s diversity.

After a gunman in March sprayed two New Zealand mosques with bullets, killing 51 people, Badwan texted local officials to invite them to a vigil outside of Greenville’s mosque. All of them showed up.

“Samar, if your mosque needs me to come and sit by the door during prayers so you feel safe, I will come,” a local pastor told her.

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She thanked him for his offer, but the mosque’s leaders decided they would need more: They hired a security guard to protect worshipers, who can number in the hundreds during Islamic holidays and who hail from Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Syria and beyond — a reflection of the fact that this city, which is still predominantly made up of native-born white and black citizens, is becoming ever more international.

“Sometimes, people in Greenville can be isolated from what the rest of the world really is,” said longtime resident Ann Hamze. “But there’s so much more diversity here now. The world has descended on Greenville.”

Hamze taught social studies in the public schools for 25 years, and she tried to instill in her students a sense for the wider world. She had worked overseas for the U.S. Agency for International Development earlier in her career, and her husband is Lebanese.

She thought the city had moved beyond some of the racial prejudice she had seen decades ago in Greenville and that for some is reflected in the monument to Confederate soldiers that stands in the heart of the city’s downtown.

Then she watched the Trump rally, and she heard the chant.

“I was surprised,” she said. “I was scanning the crowd, hoping that none of my former students from seventh-grade social studies were there.”

'Hurt and betrayed'

Trump’s rally prompted heated exchanges on the letters page of Greenville’s newspaper, the Daily Reflector.

“I have a confession to make. I was at the president’s rally Wednesday night, and when the chant ‘send them back’ broke out, I joined in, with enthusiasm,” wrote Steven Van Cleave, a resident of nearby Winterville. “And I have another confession to make. I do not feel the slightest need to apologize to anyone for doing so.”

The chant, Van Cleave wrote, had been directed at four congresswomen who “have nothing but contempt for this country” and who “should leave and go to a country they admire such as Cuba or Venezuela.”

The four congresswomen, who have been told by Trump to “go back” to where they came from, are all people of color. Three were born in the United States; the fourth, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), was born in Somalia and came to the United States as a refugee when she was a child.

At the dental office where she works, Serrano challenged co-workers who support the president to defend his words — and the crowd’s.

They did: The chant, she was told, was all about the congresswomen and their political beliefs, not about their race, ethnicity or religion.

Serrano was unconvinced. She felt “hurt and betrayed,” the crowd’s words settling in her mind like a slur against entire groups of people. It’s something, she said, she couldn’t have imagined only a few years ago.

“There was a filter, and now the filter has been broken,” she said. “My Hispanic friends are afraid to go to the store. They’re afraid to do anything. It’s scary.”

Newcomers to Greenville say that they, too, have noticed a shift.

Tareq al-Hilali, 33, came to the city as a refugee five years ago after fleeing his native Iraq. He and his family soon opened a convenience store, where they serve fried chicken to an appreciative clientele and field inquiries about the finer points of their religion.

“Why don’t you eat pork? Why does your sister wear a hijab?” said Hilali. “People ask questions, but they’re nice questions.”

His sister is less convinced that the interest is so benign. When she first moved to the United States, she said, she felt no fear walking around the city while wearing her hijab.

That has changed. Trump, she said, is responsible.

“I don’t feel safe anymore,” said Sura al-Hilali, 24.

Something else has changed, too. A few months ago, after hours of study crammed in between work at the store and her university classes, she passed her citizenship test.

“They can’t send me back now,” she said. “I have my rights.”