JayHere Im Schumard, the rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, sent an email to his congregation with some bewilderment. The plan announced could be historic – for the parish and for Wyoming. But he knew it could also be divisive. “Together, we are looking to host an Afghan family in Casper,” the headline said in big blue letters.
Whether this will happen, or even be possible, remains a question in this deeply conservative Western state. Wyoming, highly white and Christian, never formally welcomed refugees. A few years ago, the debate over refugee resettlement turned into anti-Islam protests and Quran burning, alarming the state’s small Muslim population and dashing the hopes of its foremost refugee advocate.
And this summer, leaders of just two states, Wyoming and South Dakota, said they did not want to take in the refugees, amid support for Afghan evacuations that spanned the political and faith spectrum. Wyoming is the only state that does not have a refugee resettlement program and has never had a resettlement program. This makes the Cowboy State an island in a country where the red and blue states have welcomed refugees for decades.
Bipartisan enthusiasm to help Afghans, who aided the US war effort and fled the Taliban takeover, has waned somewhat, with Senate Republicans last week reducing evacuees’ access to aid and identification cards. had tried. Still, 46 states are now preparing to host refugees – including neighboring Wyoming. Idaho is expecting about 400 next year. Utah is welcoming the 765 in the coming months. Montana will soon receive 75 Afghans.
It’s unclear why Wyoming never instituted a resettlement program, experts say, but it’s pretty clear why it’s no longer doing so: There is negligible direct support in a state where, in 2020, 70 percent of voters. cast his vote for President Donald. Trump, who downplayed refugee admissions and banned travel from several Muslim-majority countries.
In a sparsely populated state where only 3.4 percent of residents are foreign-born, some say the ethos of living alone translates into hostility toward refugees, who may need help finding housing and jobs.
“Honestly there’s a little bit of fear of the unknown,” said Republican state legislator Landon Brown, who was one of the few to voice his call for Afghan resettlement. “They are afraid of these people coming to Wyoming and living off taxpayer dollars, and perhaps Islam becoming a staple of our small population.”
Brown said he is generally wary of refugee resettlement but sees the plight of Afghans differently. “It’s shameful what America did to the Afghan population,” he said, “and it’s even more shameful that Wyoming is unwilling to step up to the plate to help these people that our president left high and dry.” Gave.”
Still, even though there is hardly any public discussion about refugees here, some are now open – partly because the need to resettle 95,000 Afghans is so great. Under Trump, resettlement agencies focused on sending small numbers of refugees to hubs with established communities and services. President Joe Biden’s plan to raise the refugee entry limit to 125,000 will change that, said Allison Duvall, manager of church relations and engagement at Episcopal Migration Ministries.
Duvall said his office has been fueled by interest from parishes across the country who want to help Afghans — including Schumer’s church and two others in Wyoming.
“We – the entire refugee resettlement infrastructure – will have to be more resilient and build capacity in places where it didn’t exist before,” Duvall said. “I think we’re going to see resettlement in places that haven’t seen it before.”
It is the hope of Bishop Paul-Gordon Chandler, who heads the Episcopal Church in the state’s 50-parish diocese, Wyoming. He arrived last year at Casper, a city of 59,000 that rises from windy meadows and rocky outcrops with a decidedly internationalist résumé. Previously a rector in Qatar, he grew up in Senegal and worked in North Africa and Europe.
Wyoming, he said, became an interest when he founded an arts nonprofit, The Caravan, which brought an exhibition of Muslim, Jewish and Christian artists to the state in 2016. The state has given him a more warm welcome than any other place, Chandler said. used to live.
Chandler insists he is unafraid of the past uproar over refugees, though he acknowledges that the buy-in will need to be “strategic”. But he says he believes the Episcopal Church, with its long history in the state, can play a unique role as a bridge. This month, the diocese is hosting a dialogue on the refugee issue by an Afghan who served as a combat interpreter with US and Afghan forces.
“One family, two families, three families — whatever it is, that’s not a lot,” Chandler said. “But I think it makes a huge statement about what we should be doing as a church and as a people, as Americans, at such a specific moment.”
Chandler said he had spoken to Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon, an Episcopalian. Gordon listened but did not commit to taking any specific action. He declined to be interviewed, but there are signs that his outlook has changed. In mid-August, his spokesman told the Cowboys State Daily that Gordon was “not interested” in accepting the Afghans. in an email to Washington Post Last week, the spokesman said Gordon was exploring the process through which Wyoming faith groups could host evacuations and would work with the legislature to work out a schedule if necessary.
Gordon said publicly on August 31 that refugees should be “properly screened”. But, he added, “These are remarkable people who are really standing with us, risking their lives and the lives of their families. They deserve mercy from us.”
The extent of that compassion may depend on how much the climate has changed since five years ago, when attempts to launch a rehabilitation program ended after vitriolic public debate.
It began with the efforts of Bertin Bahige, a Congolese refugee, who was resettled near Baltimore and later relocated to Wyoming, where he became the principal of a renowned elementary school in Gillette. Along with faculty members and students from the University of Wyoming’s law school, Bahige began talking to state officials about creating a program that, according to an account by a professor, was involved.
In 2013, then-Governor Matt Mead wrote to federal officials, expressing Wyoming’s intention to pursue a resettlement program under which federal funds would be distributed through volunteer groups. But things began to change the next year, when Mead was up for re-election. An anti-refugee protest was held at the Wyoming Capitol. A gubernatorial candidate raised fears about refugees bringing HIV or Ebola.
Mead won. But in the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis the following year, militants killed 130 people in Paris, and Mead, along with 29 other governors, called for a halt to the resettlement of Syrian refugees. In Gillette, an anti-Islamic group began to oppose a new mosque set up by Muslims, whose roots in the region go back a century. In 2016, protesters burnt the Quran outside the mosque.
The idea of refugee resettlement failed, leaving Bahige and other proponents disappointed. Now, some say, it’s hard to imagine reviving it in a state that has faced severe budget cuts amid the pandemic and falling mining revenues – and last year elected its most conservative legislature in history.
“I hope that over time people can see what I am capable of surpassing and how proud I am to call myself a Wyomingite,” Bahige said. “. . . Refugees can contribute members of our community and help diversify.”
But, he added, “I feel like maybe it’s not the right time for those conversations.”
Wyoming, with less than 600,000 people, was the slowest growing state in the West over the past decade, and the state says that 2.3 percent of its population growth is entirely in addition to people of color, mostly Latinos. is due to be. Cheyenne is home to a small number of Somali refugees who first settled in Colorado. But advocates for immigrants say most don’t live long.
“Wyoming needs to do better, especially if they want humans to move there,” said Mohamed Salih, a Sudanese native who lived in Cheyenne for 33 years, where he was the dean of a community college and often He used to talk about Islam. He moved to Denver more than a year ago. “I had friends, but overall, the community isn’t really welcoming to the other. And that’s, I think, married into their conservative beliefs: We want to keep Wyoming as Wyoming—whatever that means.” .
In Casper, the central Wyoming “Oil City” where Schumard aspires to bring an Afghan family, there is no mosque. Only three exist in the state. On a recent Friday at Cheyenne’s Islamic Center, two dozen men prayed in one room and two women in the other – one of whom had walked nearly two hours from their small town close to Casper.
Outside, cinder-block walls stood in front of the windows. The members – some US-born, but mostly immigrants from countries including Nigeria, Pakistan and India – said they made them worry after attacks on US synagogues that mosques could also be targeted. Many members said they were welcomed by Cheyenne’s small Muslim community and that they knew a variety of non-Muslim Wyomingites. But some said they also faced discrimination. Amar Tawfiq, Egyptian-born former railroad engineer who now owns…
Credit: www.independent.co.uk / Refugees