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Story Publication logo March 19, 2019

Southern Hospitality? Immigrants Settling in Richmond

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The salmon swim upstream from the sea into the island in the spring. Image by Brooke Stephenson. United States, 2019.
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A bilingual sign at the Sacred Heart Center, welcoming all those who enter the community building. Image by Jack Sims. United States, 2019.
A bilingual sign at the Sacred Heart Center, welcoming all those who enter the community building. Image by Jack Sims. United States, 2019.

If you veer off the highway while passing through Richmond, Virginia, and take a few turns here and there, you may find yourself surrounded by the remarkable beauty of one of the city’s most famous streets–Monument Avenue. This quintessential southern avenue is lined with paving stones, bordered by historic houses, and enveloped by overhanging oak trees which extend from a wide median that divides the two lanes.

The avenue stretches directly into Richmond’s historic Fan District, a primarily residential neighborhood with parks, picturesque avenues, locally-run shops, and mouthwatering restaurants. A prominent feature of Monument Avenue, however, are massive monuments celebrating Confederate generals, which harkens to a time when people were brought to America against their will to live a life of slavery.

It was into this complex scene of urban, southern Americana that two families of Burmese refugees arrived in 2007, landing at the doorstep of the Tabernacle Baptist Church. Having been placed in Richmond by resettlement agencies, the Burmese families lacked many of the resources necessary to construct a new life in this new city. That is where parishioners of the Tabernacle Baptist Church stepped in to help by opening the parish doors and working together to give them food, shelter, and a community. The arrival of these two families altered the lives of many parishioners, as well as inspiring small organizations to help incorporated refugees and immigrants from all over the globe into Richmond’s small, yet vibrant community.

As immigration and refugee policy has quickly become a source of conflict among American political parties, Richmond, a city rooted in its southern traditions, has become a landing place for immigrants from all over the globe. To delve into the world of Richmond’s newest settlers, from the two Burmese families to the many Latinx people making Richmond their home, is to see how the current political drama surrounding immigration, refugees, and the border wall is changing the makeup of America’s small cities, even those miles away from any international borders.

Since its beginnings, Richmond has existed as a paradox of new beginnings and historical traditionalism. The site of Patrick Henry’s revolutionary words in St. John’s Church, Richmond was also the home of one of the largest slave ports in the country. And, further up the James River sits Tredegar Ironworks, which supplied the Confederate States of America with enough iron to fight in the Civil War.

Despite lacking any international flights arriving or departing from the nearby airport, Richmond is filled with local organizations focused on refugee resettlement, providing services for undocumented people, and education programs for immigrants of all backgrounds.

Richmond is home to just under 30,000 Latinxs with origins or familial origins from a large variety of countries. The majority of the Latinx immigrants have familial roots in Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala, but also from Colombia, Argentina, and Puerto Rico.

Furthermore, according to ReEstablish Richmond, more than 2,000 refugees call Richmond their home as well. These refugees come from countries across the world, including Afghanistan, Bhutan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, and many more. Over the last few years, the Latinx population has grown significantly while the refugee resettlement in Richmond has been has experienced fluctuations as a result of national and international policies.

Not unlike many cities in the Southwest that are typically associated with immigration, Richmond has experienced a significant increase in the immigration of Latinx people. Before 1990, only around 8,000 Latinx people lived in Greater Richmond, with a total population of 865,640 people that year. Within 10 years, the population grew by 165 percent and has continued to increase steadily since. Some of these people have resettled in Richmond as immigrants from other countries, as United States-born citizens relocating for personal reasons, as refugees, and under many other circumstances. Concerns about immigration and refugee policy does not simply start and end at the United States-Mexico border.

While the city is experiencing changes caused by the different demographic and population variations, Helen Rai, an employee at ReEstablish Richmond, stressed that the different immigration status people have determines what kind of supports and services to which they might have access. Refugees and immigrants from all different countries may share similar experiences dealing with language barriers and navigating a new culture, but their status as refugees, immigrants, or a people without citizenship documentation will greatly impact their experience settling into the city.

Because citizenship status and refugee status impact the lives of these new Richmonders, organizations like ReEstablish Richmond and the Sacred Heart Center play a necessary role of stepping in when the state and local governments do not.

“Despite a lot of the racial tensions in Richmond because of its historical context, we as an organization have received an outpouring of community support,” said Kate Ayers, director of ReEstablish Richmond.

These efforts by community-based organizations, however, have their limits. The Sacred Heart Center, a Latinx-focused community organization, must balance the needs of the people they serve and the wishes of their donors.

“Some donors have specified that they do not wish for their funds to go to the Family Protection Program due to its mission to help undocumented people,” said Tanya Gonzalez, executive director of the Sacred Heart Center.

The front facade of the Sacred Heart Center. Behind the doors lie classrooms, a basketball court, space for worship, and, of course, Tanya Gonzales' office. Image by Jack Sims. United States, 2019.
The front facade of the Sacred Heart Center. Behind the doors lie classrooms, a basketball court, space for worship, and, of course, Tanya Gonzales' office. Image by Jack Sims. United States, 2019.

Inspired by the success of the work done by Tabernacle Baptist Church, Kate Ayers became involved in ReEstablish Richmond, eventually accepting her position as director. Ayers and the organization are dedicated to connecting refugees to the services they need in order to live independently in Richmond.

Ayers stumbled upon her passion for working with refugees after taking a social justice-based class as part of the “Just Faith” program. Before working with ReEstablish Richmond, Ayers worked as a special education teacher and department chair in Hanover County, part of the Greater Richmond Region, but after the program, she came across an opportunity to assist an Eritrean family who resettled in Virginia with refugee status from the United Nations. From there, her passion to ease the resettlement process blossomed.

The Burmese families who showed up at Tabernacle illuminated gaps in the services provided for refugees resettling in Richmond, leading Patrick Bradford, a member at the church, to found ReEstablish Richmond in 2011. Since then, the organization has grown and continually adapted to provide safe and productive resettlement for a changing Richmond community.

ReEstablish Richmond offers refugees a variety of basic services to ease their acclimation to life in Richmond. These services range from classes teaching people how to navigate Richmond’s public transportation to health and wellness programs like yoga and cultural discussions to community engagement and networking programs. According to Ayers, the reason why ReEstablish Richmond has been so successful in helping refugees is because they start in the homes of the families relocating to Richmond and are able to build support systems through trust and personalized programming.

Crossing over the James River towards the southern end of the city, Tanya Gonzalez, the executive director of the Sacred Heart Center, sits at her desk, past a large statue of the Virgin Mary, around the corner from the community basketball court, up the stairs, and in an office at the back of an old classroom. She sips a cup of freshly brewed tea, overseeing every move at the Sacred Heart Center, be it an issue with the radiator in the basement, a scheduling conflict with one of the many English-as-a-second language classes, or meeting with a concerned parent, recently relocated in Richmond from El Salvador.

The Sacred Heart Center is a Catholic organization dedicated to providing services and tools to Richmond’s Latinx population.

Gonzalez grew up in Texas, right next to the border, and when she first moved Richmond, she noted that there were not many people like her in the area.

“I first realized I was Mexican when I moved away from the border, and people told me I looked different,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez moved to the Richmond area around 20 years ago. Since then, she has found solidarity and a community at the Sacred Heart Center. The center, like ReEstablish Richmond, works by providing Richmond’s Latinx community with basic services and programs to ensure that everyone has the ability to “thrive and flourish,” as emphasized by Gonzalez. Some of the programs and services they provide include: English as a Second Language classes, GED preparatory classes taught in Spanish, citizenship classes, summer camps, support for undocumented people, and much more.

Gonzalez emphasized that not everyone in the Latinx community requires the same services and opportunities. While attempting to provide a plurality of programs, the Sacred Heart Center first and foremost aims to provide a supportive community with welcoming arms.  

Despite the complexities evident living in Richmond as an immigrant or refugee, Ayers sees a lot of benefits for having ReEstablish Richmond located there. She noted that since the administration began restricting refugee immigration, the organization has received an outpouring of community support, especially from volunteers. Rather than spending time and energy on recruiting volunteers, with so many helping hands already available, Ayers said the organization is able to focus on providing the services the refugee communities need.

“I’ve certainly had conversations with people who maybe aren’t as supportive of immigration, but there hasn’t been an incidence of overwhelming pushback or negative comments on our social media or any of that sort of thing,” Ayers said.

Considering the reception of new people into the Richmond community, Gonzalez noted that on the one hand, similarly to Ayers, the Richmond community welcomes people of different backgrounds. In her experience as the director of The Sacred Heart Center, there also has not been much notable pushback from the surrounding community. On the other hand, however, Gonzalez said that while nobody is unbearably against the work that the organization provides, being Latinx in Richmond can be isolating and the general community often ignores the needs of its Latinx citizens.

Not everyone is supportive of every service the Sacred Heart Center provides. In light of the recent crackdowns by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the persistent nationalist rhetoric coming from Washington, the center has started a new service called the Family Protection Program that works directly with people facing the threat of deportation or imprisonment by the government.

“People here don’t realize that families are being separated in Richmond. Just because we are far away from the border doesn’t mean these things aren’t happening here,” said Gonzalez, talking excitedly about this program.

Her excitement dwindled, though, when she mentioned that the center is struggling to fund this particular program. Funding for the Sacred Heart Center primarily comes from private grants, donations, corporate donations, faith-based donations, and some state funding. Because the majority of these funds are privately donated, they are allocated according to wherever the donor wishes them to go. Gonzalez revealed that some donors have specified that they do not wish for their funds to go to the Family Protection Program due to its mission to help undocumented people.

There exists a paradox in which people and organizations want to support immigrants and the Latinx community, just not everyone, namely those who lack official citizenship documents.

ReEstablish Richmond confronts challenges in serving Richmond’s undocumented population as well. As an organization, Ayers noted that they do not require proof of citizenship in order to receive access to the services they provide. This way, undocumented people can utilize the classes and have access to community support that makes the settlement process in Richmond quicker, safer, and more successful.

But the services ReEstablish Richmond can provide for undocumented Richmonders has its limits.

“If someone asked us for support with employment but they don't have employment authorization, that's somewhere where we would not be able to assist that person,” said Ayers.  “We just don't have the skills to do a lot with the undocumented community.”

While larger cities like Washington D.C., New York City, and Los Angeles may have many more resources for refugees and immigrants, Ayers said, being in a smaller city like Richmond allows for greater centralization and concentration of resources. Richmond’s size makes it easier to reach more people.

Ayers went so far as to cite a much smaller organization working in Harrisonburg, VA, as an ideal situation.

“What they have going for them is so much more seamless and makes so much more sense because they have a really close relationship with the one high school. Because there's only one high school in Harrisonburg, there's only one resettlement agency. You're able to really centralize things there… and that's one of the things we as an organization really strive to do is bring everyone doing this work together in the same room so that were not duplicating and that we are trying to work together.”

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