SANTA FE, N.M. — It was those pictures that led to an effort to resettle refugees in Santa Fe.
“Those haunting, heart-wrenching, heartbreaking pictures we saw with the flow of refugees coming out of Syria,” said Nancy Dickenson, who as a Santa Fe filmmaker knows a little bit about the power of images. “The people dying, drowning. It had a deep effect.”
One picture in particular went viral a little more than a year ago. It was of a 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, dressed in a red shirt, blue shorts and tennis shoes, lying dead, face down in the sand of Turkey’s Bodrum beach, washed ashore after he and about a dozen other Syrian refugees drowned after their boat sank while attempting to reach the Greek island of Kos.
Deeply moved, Dickenson talked to her friend Laban Wingert about what they could do to help the thousands fleeing Syria, a country in the midst of a civil war and now again the center of worldwide attention as more haunting images are coming out of Aleppo.
Wingert, an accomplished architect, had done some work for Dickenson and they’ve worked together on philanthropic projects over the years.
“We asked, ‘What can we do?’ And he (Wingert) took it and ran with it,” Dickenson said, quickly adding that, along the way, dozens of other people in the community have come together to help.
In less than a year – and largely through the efforts of Santa Fe’s faith communities – what snowballed into a group calling themselves Welcoming Santa Fe were able to get the city designated a refugee resettlement site by the U.S. State Department.
“We were elated,” Dickenson said.
But that was in October. Weeks later, on Nov. 8, Donald Trump won the presidential election. He campaigned on a strict immigration policy that included building a wall on the southern border to stop illegal immigration. He also proposed a temporary ban on allowing Muslims into the country, a message he repeated Wednesday in response to this week’s terrorist attack in Berlin that was allegedly perpetrated by a Tunisian asylum-seeker.
No one knows what a Trump presidency will mean for immigration policy. And that’s what caused Lutheran Family Services, an affiliate of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service – one of nine national organizations that work on behalf of the U.S. government to resettle refugees in different parts of the country – to put on hold using Santa Fe as a refugee settlement site.
One hundred refugees, including up to 20 families and 30 children mainly from Central Africa but also from the Middle East and South America, were scheduled to make Santa Fe their new home next month. The startup of a refugee resettlement program was mentioned at a recent meeting of the city Immigration Committee and notice had been issued for a fundraising concert.
“At this point, we don’t know what’s going to happen with the new administration, so we’re going to wait a quarter,” said Tarrie Burnett, program director for Lutheran Family Services in Albuquerque, the only other New Mexico city designated as a refugee resettlement site. “There’s a general sense of unease and a big question mark about what’s going to happen. We don’t want to start a new community in the midst of that.”
Burnett said future funding is also a major concern. Trump has talked about scaling back the nation’s admissions program for refugees, defined by the State Department as people who face persecution in their native lands.
Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales, who has taken a stand nationally supporting “sanctuary city” policies against helping the federal government enforce laws against undocumented immigrants, also has supported allowing more Syrian refugees into the country. Last year, he was among 18 mayors, representing Cities United for Immigration Action coalition, who signed a letter asking President Barrack Obama to let in more Syrian refugees.
Immigration outlook cloudy
According to the Pew Research Center’s analysis of data from the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center, the number of refugees accepted into the United States has increased under President Obama from 60,000 when he was first elected president eight years ago to nearly 85,000 this year. An Obama administration report to Congress said the resettlement program would strive to admit 110,000 in the fiscal year that started in October.
About 39,000, 46 percent of refugees accepted into the country last year, were Muslim, according to the Pew report. Slightly fewer, 44 percent, were Christian.
Trump’s election could mean a much smaller number of refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. His 10-point plan for immigration would “temporarily suspend immigration from regions that export terrorism and where safe vetting cannot presently be ensured.”
Burnett says the people that come through Lutheran Family Services and the other placement groups are heavily vetted. The vast majority are from Afghanistan and the Central African countries of Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Only a few have come from Syria. Many of them are families with children, she noted.
According to the Pew Research Center, 19 percent of refugees coming into America during fiscal year 2016 were from Congo. Syrian and Burmese people made up 15 percent each. Other nationalities with significant representation included Iraq, Somalia, Iran, Afghanistan and Ukraine.
Burnett says the regulated resettlement of refugees in New Mexico has been going on for 25 or 30 years, mostly through Catholic Charities. Lutheran Family Services has been a part of the picture for the past four years. Together with Catholic Charities, they’ve helped resettle 330 men, women and children in New Mexico last year and were expecting to work with that many or more next year.
Burnett said her office operates on a budget of about $1 million, about 75 percent of it coming from the federal government. The rest comes from various grants, pass-through funding, donations and other sources.
Organizers still hopeful
The Santa Fe effort brought together resources from throughout the community. Wingert, who “ran with” the idea of establishing Santa Fe as a resettlement site, said the Interfaith Leadership Alliance, a coalition of the city’s religious groups, was instrumental in helping prepare for Santa Fe’s first refugee families. He said he found many of them were already doing things in an effort to assist Syrian refugees.
“I was amazed that all of these different groups on their own were wanting to help out,” he said.
Wingert and others say that Santa Fe is an ideal location for refugee resettlement. “Santa Fe is an international crossroads,” he said.
“Santa Fe is very accepting of diversity,” said Joene Herr, pastor at Christ Lutheran Church in Santa Fe, who is helping coordinate preparations for receiving refugees. “We don’t look at it as fear, we see it as an opportunity to create a wonderful community.”
Despite the setback, she and everyone else involved in the effort are hopeful refugee families will be settled in Santa Fe sometime in 2017.
“We were ready to go, and I guess we still are,” Herr said. “We’re grieving a little bit right now, but we have people from all sorts of organizations, the faith community, and people of good will who are excited about getting (refugee families) set up in apartments.”
Herr explained that refugees get a stipend and assistance with furnishing their new homes and clothing. Families are connected with mentors that help them with the transition, including teaching them English. They also receive assistance in finding employment and health care services. The ultimate goal is to put them on a path to citizenship after five years, she said.
The hope was, and still is, that Lutheran Family Services will establish a new office in Santa Fe staffed by a local program manager, an employment coordinator, a cultural liaison and volunteer coordinator.
While they wait to see how things shake out, Herr said her church has initiated a letter-writing campaign to state senators and representatives.
“In the meantime, we’re doing what we can until we have clarity,” she said. “I know we’re not the only organization that’s frustrated. I’m hoping that people of good will will win out.”
Dickenson isn’t willing to give up the effort to add even more diversity to the City Different through refugee resettlement.
“We have to have courage and not to let this die,” she said. “We have to work at getting families here that need this new life and need a new beginning. We just all have to persevere and have the strength to be sure that we’re there for all the people on the planet.”