On Monday, March 4, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event with local education, faith-based, and policy organizations at Samford University, titled Addressing the Global Refugee Crisis – Part: What Can We Do? The panel discussion, moderated by Rachel Hagues (Assistant Professor at Samford University – Department of Social Work), included Carlos Aleman (Deputy Director at Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama), Mary Baxter (Resettlement Specialist at World Relief Atlanta), Cesar Mata (Organizing Fellow at Adelante Alabama Worker Center), Sarai Portillo (Executive Director at Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice), Leida Venegas (Refugee/Birmingham Resident from Colombia), and Lynda Wilson (Chair at Refugee Interest Group), where they addressed their organizations’ roles in the current refugee crisis and how local community members can get involved.
Baxter first addressed the audience by speaking about World Relief’s origin which stemmed from a faith-based relief effort that addressed the devastation in Europe after WW2. The organization began addressing refugee resettlement in 1979 and, today, are only one of nine organizations in the country that has a contract with the U.S. State Department to help resettle refugees. World Relief does case management work that covers child development, agriculture, and nutrition as well as teaches participants about navigating housing, U.S. laws, and obtaining proper documentation. World Relief also offers legal services and English tutoring to make resettled refugees are on a supportive, sustainable path in the U.S. Finally, World Relief has a church mobilization program which helps amplify their faith-based humanitarian efforts.
Aleman informed the audience that Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (HICA) is currently observing its 20th anniversary as an organization, but there is much needed work still to be done. Although 70% of HICA’s participants are of Mexican heritage, they are here to help any and every one that is in-need of assistance. He argued that “refugee” is a political title because Cubans entering the U.S. during the Cold War were afforded this title. However, Central Americans fleeing to the U.S. currently don’t have that same benefit because the political environment has cultivated anti-immigrant rhetoric about those trying to cross the Mexico-U.S. border. HICA offers a Justice and Leadership Program that helps people achieve immigrant status as well as a Family Program that is case management-centered, the latter assisting children enroll for school and people navigating the court system.
Portillo also mentioned our current political environment by mentioning that refugees have been scapegoated for electoral purposes but that the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice (ACIJ) will not be discouraged. ACIJ is a coalition of six non-profit organizations and hundreds of individual members throughout the state of Alabama. More specifically, ACIJ does preventative work, such as family emergency plans, that prepare people for economic, social, and/or legal challenges that relate to their immigrant status. You can help advance ACIJ’s mission of grassroots immigrant justice by volunteering or donating to their organization.
Aleman of Adelante mentioned how there are many problems facing their participant community and that the existence of immigrant detention centers, much like Etowah in Gadsden, is an issue that is not exclusive to this current presidential administration. As a result, Adelante has helped organize the #SHUTDOWNETOWAH campaign which is “committed to ending the human rights abuses at the Etowah County Detention Center” due the facility’s notorious mistreatment of detainees, including inadequate medical care, poor nutrition, and verbal abuse. Adelante also offers many volunteer opportunities, including the Accompaniment Program, which assists members with transportation to court hearings and probation appointments, a worker’s assembly called Asamblea!, and a Pen Pal Program.
Wilson briefly spoke about the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham’s Refugee Interest Group whose three pillars are direct support, education, and advocacy as well as the remarkable journey of an asylum-seeking mother and her two children who fled Angola to Cuba, relocated to Ecuador, then walked a grueling 1800 miles to El Paso. Following, she introduced Leida Venegas, a refugee from Colombia and current Birmingham resident, who shared the story about leaving her country because of organized crime and governmental conflict. Venegas also fled to Ecuador where she corresponded with the United Nations and U.S. government for over a year then moved to Birmingham. With only three suitcases and her children, Venegas relied on her case worker from Catholic Social Services and church volunteers who have assisted her with housing, learning English, and transportation to obtain documentation. She insisted such volunteering has been vital and is very thankful to all of those who’ve committed their time and opened the door to their home.
As demonstrated, the current refugee crisis is not only in the hands of the U.S. government but to anyone who wants to get involved. Many organizations addressing this pressing issue have limited resources so lending a helping hand could change or possibly save a life. What can you do to address the current refugee crisis?