Immigrants find accommodation in a small church in the Atlanta metro

Pastor Tom Hagood and his wife Susan Hagood and many volunteers helped the couple get to classes, medical care and career counseling.

“They are parents to us,” said Sawlani, 44, one recent afternoon, sitting in the sunny room he shares with Nawani, their clothes hanging on a portable rack, their dishes arranged near a plate. heater and a new refrigerator. “They support us when we were in a bad situation.”

The small church, which is still recovering from the postponement of in-person services during the COVID-19 era, is actually welcoming five asylum seekers, including immigrants from Venezuela, Jamaica and Cuba, one from Nigeria awaiting a open room.

Visitors are tucked away in spaces that were once used for a nursery, an associate pastor’s seat, an office manager’s booth, and storage space.

This is a big commitment for a church of about 100 members, but church leadership and the congregation have decided that the effort is part of the church’s mission.

Legend

Giuseppe Parra, from Venezuela, traveled “The Beast”, the notorious freight train network, through Central America and Mexico to seek asylum in the United States. After protesting against the Maduro administration, he was jailed, beaten and threatened with death. Photo: courtesy of Giuseppe Parra

Credit: Giuseppe Parra

Giuseppe Parra, from Venezuela, rode "The beast," the infamous freight train network, across Central America and Mexico seeking asylum in the United States.  After protesting against the Maduro administration, he was jailed, beaten and threatened with death.  Photo: courtesy of Giuseppe Parra
legend arrowLegend

Giuseppe Parra, from Venezuela, traveled “The Beast”, the notorious freight train network, through Central America and Mexico to seek asylum in the United States. After protesting against the Maduro administration, he was jailed, beaten and threatened with death. Photo: courtesy of Giuseppe Parra

Credit: Giuseppe Parra

Credit: Giuseppe Parra

“It helps the least of them,” said church member Stuart Miner, a former elder who helped install the plumbing for one of the two showers shared by guests.

Sawlani and Nawani are grateful for the help and say they even have a friend who drives them to the Sikh services in Norcross. Nawani said the only thing they lack is being able to buy the spices they love.

Church members installed window air conditioners and fans for the hotplates. Members of half a dozen other churches contributed funds to purchase refrigerators, beds, a washer and dryer, and other furniture.

“I’m happy to be able to help where we can; it’s a worthwhile project, ”said Bob Reardon, church leader and longtime elder, who can often be found on a ladder with a portable drill in hand, mending old wooden planks. edging or squeaky gutters in the aging building.

Efforts to help Pakistani newcomers and their colleagues are part of the mission of the New Sanctuary Movement, a loose coalition of churches and other organizations that came together during the Trump administration when the law and national policy of the Georgia have stacked up against asylum seekers and undocumented migrants.

The original idea was that asylum seekers at risk of deportation could find protection in churches, where ICE agents were theoretically prohibited from walking.

“That was the big question: Were churches really banned? Miner said. “Some thought, yes, no one will set foot in a church. Other people have said, when things are going well, it’s just another building. “

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Anand Sawlani and his wife Kiran Nawani, who are asylum seekers from Pakistan, live in a converted Sunday school hall at Columbia Presbyterian Church in Decatur. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Anand Sawlani and his wife Kiran Nawani, who are asylum seekers from Pakistan, live in a converted Sunday school hall at Columbia Presbyterian Church in Decatur.  Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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Anand Sawlani and his wife Kiran Nawani, who are asylum seekers from Pakistan, live in a converted Sunday school hall at Columbia Presbyterian Church in Decatur. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Then the question arose as to whether an asylum seeker, once inside, could not come out without risk of arrest. This did not happen in Columbia.

Due to their visa extensions, Sawlani and Nawani are free to come and go. Venezuelan Giuseppe Parra, 22, who has been in church intermittently since 2018, has a work permit and bus meals at a Mexican restaurant.

Rajhon Whyte from Jamaica became a certified nursing assistant while in church and working at a Wellstar facility.

In 2010, the Georgia Board of Regents banned undocumented students from attending the top five public universities, prompting a resistance organization called Freedom University. The group has held protests at board meetings (including one documented by comedian Jordan Klepper) and raised funds to send immigrants to private schools with no tuition fees.

The New Sanctuary movement works in tandem with Freedom University. The goals of the New Sanctuary Movement have changed over time. Most agree that in Georgia the chances of a case being resolved in favor of asylum seekers are slim to none.

Fewer than one in 10 asylum claims were approved in Georgia between fiscal 2016 and 2021, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research body that monitors the government.

Rather than hiding and waiting, sanctuary apartments such as those at Columbia Presbyterian are best used as transitional housing. Asylum seekers seek education, counseling, work visas, legal aid, while members of the New Asylum Movement push for laws to be changed.

The New Sanctuary movement is also trying to help refugees who live in precarious conditions, helping to pay for housing and training.

Reverend Jonathan Rogers, Unitarian Universalist pastor and key member of Atlanta’s New Sanctuary movement, said the Christmas story should guide us in our interactions with asylum seekers.

This column is “such a familiar yet profound representation and illustration of our duty as people of conscience,” said Rogers, “as people who seek to live within the values ​​of humanitarianism and respect for dignity and worth of others, regardless of their status, regardless of whether they were born in a barn, surrounded by farm animals, or come to the United States without citizenship status.

“One of the fundamental parts of what it means to be a good, moral, caring and compassionate person,” he said, “is to extend that generosity – to treat a stranger as yourself, to love your neighbor as yourself. oneself. “

Dora W. Clawson