At the Urban Harvest Farmers Market in downtown Houston, Edith Constant Ngouala runs his booth. It is nestled among over sixty other Houstonians’ stands, which sell everything from bison meat to bonsai trees. Ngouala, a tall man with a shy smile, has a more traditional setup: his tables are lined with baskets of fresh produce from his farm in the southwest part of the city. Ngouala greets his customers as they stop by for bags of green beans, carrots, and other vegetables, but he stays mostly quiet. He’s still working on his English.
Ngouala is a refugee. He fled violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in March 2009 became one of many refugees welcomed to Texas through the federal government’s refugee resettlement program. This program, according to Pew Research Center data, has resettled more than 3 million refugees from over seventy different countries over the past 40 years. Many of those refugees, like Ngouala, are sent to Texas. In recent years, Texas has resettled more refugees than any other state except California, taking in over 9% of all refugees admitted to the U.S. in fiscal year 2016.
Because of this, advocates say that Texas has a rich network of organizations and agencies to aid refugees. Texas’ welcoming atmosphere toward resettlement, however, has recently been shaken.
In September 2016, Texas Governor Greg Abbott informed the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement that Texas would be withdrawing from the federal refugee resettlement program, a move that went into effect after January 31, 2017. According to a press release from the Republican governor’s office, Abbott made this decision based on the belief that the vetting process for refugees, especially those from “terrorist-based nations,” is not comprehensive enough to ensure that incoming refugees pose no security threat.
“While many refugees pose no danger, some pose grave danger,” Abbott said in a statement following the state’s decision. “Despite multiple requests by the State of Texas, the federal government lacks the capability or the will to distinguish the dangerous from the harmless, and Texas will not be an accomplice to such dereliction of duty to the American people.”
At the heart of the governor’s decision, advocates see a shift not in the actual number of refugees being resettled and assisted, but in the government’s attitude toward resettlement. In terms of numbers, the refugee services will not change, but only who provides them–now an outside agency as opposed to the state–will change.
The real tension is in ideology. Advocates in Texas commend their volunteers’ continued efforts to assist refugees, but the state warns against the possible dangers of refugees. Abbott and others like him believe that their duty involves prioritizing safety concerns for Americans over concerns for refugees trying to reach safety in America.
This mindset is one that has recently been reflected in national politics. Texas’ withdrawal predated President Trump’s controversial travel ban, which proposed on January 27 a suspension of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days. Texas’ decision was one step on the way to that proposal, though Texas’ move centered less on concrete action and more on administrative readjustment.
“The state backing out of the refugee program essentially just created more bureaucracy,” State Representative Gene Wu, D-Tx., says. “It’s not going to stop refugees from coming, it’s not going to stop money from coming.”
The only long-term effect Wu sees is that the state, which ended its involvement in the resettlement process, will no longer have direct access to refugee resettlement information. Wu describes the whole decision as “a cutting-off-the-nose-to-spite-the-face kind of maneuver.”
In other words, the federal money allocated for refugee resettlement will still be coming into the state, but the state will no longer be the distributer of this funding. Instead, a different agency will take over to accept and redistribute the federal money to the various aid organizations that already exist in Texas. The state is simply removing itself from its role as a middleman, so now a different agency will fill that role.
Of the four agencies stepping in across Texas, the designated fiscal agent specifically for Houston is YMCA International Services, which is in charge of allocating and overseeing funds for itself and five other resettlement agencies.
“Our intention is to operate the program exactly as it was operated by the state,” says YMCA spokesperson Heather Saucier.
With the program remaining essentially the same, it seems that security concerns will still exist. In fact, concerns about domestic safety have always existed, and they have always been a factor in refugee resettlement, which is why the selection and vetting process for refugees takes up to two years, and, according to the Department of State, involves the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the U.S. These checks include intensive biographic and biometric screenings conducted through multiple federal intelligence, security, and law enforcement agencies. Those components are part of the current system, but Texas called for more.
“Empathy must be balanced with security,” Abbott said in a press release.
For Chris Kelley, spokesperson for Refugee Services of Texas, that balance does not have to mean compromise. “Providing security and refuge are not mutually exclusive objectives,” Kelley wrote in an email. He emphasizes that refugees are trying to escape the countries of which politicians are wary. "Refugees are fleeing violence–not participating in fomenting it.”
According to the U.S. Department of State, a refugee is someone fleeing persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. The world today is facing unprecedented numbers of refugees and displaced persons, with over 65 million refugees worldwide. Of those, the U.S. takes in a small fraction to be resettled permanently. In fiscal year 2016, the cap was set at 85,000 refugees, and for FY 2017, which began October 2016, the Obama administration’s goal was to expand that to 110,000 refugees. According to recent data, the majority resettled are women and children, and over 70 percent come from Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Burma, Iraq, and Somalia combined.
Kelley sees the current problem not as how to create more security checks for these vulnerable groups, but as how to continue effectively serving them despite the state’s “wrong-hearted” decision. Though it may be difficult to rework the public-private partnership that Texas has created to assist refugees, Kelley knows the services won’t stop. “Rest assured,” Kelley writes, “the thousands of compassionate Texans who have helped resettle refugees for over four decades… will not abandon them in their hour of need. Texas is a very welcoming place for refugees.”
That idea is certainly expressed at the Houston farmers market where Ngouala runs his booth. There, he is one among many other Houstonians, and when asked about his identity as a Congolese or an American, he says, “Now, I’m a Texan.”
Ngouala was resettled in the U.S. in March 2009, but he did not have his farm in Houston until 2012. He first started working in manufacturing, which is a common job for newly arrived refugees, along with jobs in the service industry, transportation, security, child and household care, and interpretation and translation. In the manufacturing job, Ngouala could not manage his own hours, and as refugee advocate Cathy Stewart puts it, he was an “invisible worker.”
Stewart is a dedicated volunteer with a Houston organization set on creating meaningful work for Congolese refugees, whom she says often have less formal education and have more trouble with English, leading to difficulty securing better job opportunities. The organization, Plant It Forward, builds on the skill that many Congolese refugees already have: farming. Started in 2012, Plant It Forward trained and now works with nine refugee farmers, including Ngouala, who farm plots of land in Houston. Stewart says the program helps validate refugees’ lives in America and teaches them how to be businessmen and entrepreneurs, and it also benefits Houston by supplying fresh, authentically local produce.
The program provides a way of integrating culture through food, Stewart says, by sharing with Houstonians the native Congolese produce that the farmers may grow, and by teaching the farmers about popular and potentially unfamiliar American produce.
Another Plant It Forward farmer is Roy Rogiero Nlenva, who spends his Saturday morning setting up his farm stand and selling produce from there. The farm stand is parked across from the University of St. Thomas, right on the edge of Nlenva’s half-acre plot of land, which even in the winter yields an assortment of crops. The image of Nlenva setting up coolers, pulling out baskets, and placing hand-written labels next to his vegetables falls against a backdrop of houses, powerlines, and taller buildings in the distance. The farm truly is in the center of Houston.
When asked about Houston, Nlenva says, “I’m feeling like my city, like I’m born here. I love my Houston, my heart in Houston.” That sense of community is evident at his farm stand. There’s everyone from the man who warmly greets Nlenva and waits for his usual order to the young woman who stumbles upon the farm stand for the first time and exclaims, “I’ve just found the coolest place!”
Nlenva has been part of the community since he was resettled in 2001. He says that he was a “fan of politics” in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but after he backed the wrong political figure, he had to flee. He traveled to Angola and then spent years in Russia before finally being admitted to the U.S. He remembers that Russians did not like refugees, that he was often attacked on the streets, and that he and other refugees had no opportunities there. After he came to the U.S., his situation changed.
“Here I’m good,” he says. “I have freedom.”
Before joining Plant It Forward in 2012, he worked at many different companies, but now, on this farm, he is his own boss.
“It has changed my life,” Nlenva says of the farm.
Providing this freedom to refugees is a key goal of the U.S. resettlement program, and as the number of refugees globally has swelled, so too has the number of refugees that the U.S. aims to resettle. However, Texas, along with other states, has revealed that at some point, a line will be drawn. The growing tide of incoming refugees has stirred up fear.
Wu thinks the fear and the motivation behind Texas’s withdrawal are most directly linked to the Syrian refugee crisis. As a result of that crisis, there has been an increased push to resettle more Syrian refugees, the vast majority of whom are Muslim.
“The concern is not about refugees,” Wu says. “The irrational fear is about religion, a religion that is different.”
After the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015, Abbott made a statement against accepting Syrian refugees. In a letter to then-President Barack Obama, Abbott wrote, “Texas cannot participate in any program that will result in Syrian refugees–any one of whom could be connected to terrorism–being resettled in Texas.”
Wu says of Texas’s recent withdrawal: “The governor wants to look tough, looks like he’s fighting terrorism.”
Wu believes that the fear of Syrian and Muslim refugees in particular is misguided and stems from a lack of information. “The way to combat hate is to reduce fear and the way we reduce fear is to provide more information… People [need] to know who are the immigrants and refugees around them.”
Wu cites Houston, “a city built by refugees,” as a great example of a place combating fear and misinformation by being diverse. “If you’re around people from all over the world all the time, you just don’t know any different and you’re just okay with it by default,” Wu says.
Houston is an example of achievable progress, but many agencies and programs involved with refugees are fearful that the new administration in the federal government may hinder this progress. Ali Al Sudani, however, is hopeful.
“I’m optimistic, by nature,” says Al Sudani, an Iraqi refugee, now a U.S. citizen and the director of refugee services at Interfaith Ministries. “I think the impact of the refugees and the immigrants to the American economy is very important, and I think the new administration, they realize this.”
Al Sudani works with refugees and sees them bringing their food, culture, good attitude, and determination to achieve the American dream, all of which contribute positively to the culture and the economy of their new home cities.
Al Sudani also sees refugee resettlement as a good opportunity for Americans to show and practice compassion.
“I look at it as a two-way street that we are helping these refugees, and they are giving us the opportunity to practice what we believe in regardless of your faith, ideology.” he says. “It is an opportunity for us to engage and to show to these new Americans what America is about, who we are as a nation, who we are as people.”
As an optimist, Al Sudani believes that as long as people educate the new administration and showcase refugees and the positive impacts they have, then the U.S. will still aid refugees. Like Wu, he thinks education is an important way to dispel misunderstanding.
To Al Sudani, resettlement is a tradition that has and must continue to endure in Texas and across the nation. After all, he believes that “refugee resettlement is as American as the apple pie and the baseball.”