How Dallas Became One Of America’s Most Refugee-Friendly Cities

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Posted on: May 21, 2017

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At 10 a.m. on the day before Easter, the area around the Canyon Creek Presbyterian Church in Northeast Dallas already has the manic air of a massive children’s birthday party. In one corner, a bounce house pulses like an arrhythmic heart. Volunteers from the church assist an endless line of kids as they climb the stairs of the giant inflatable slide. Toddlers absentmindedly drag Easter baskets behind them, trickles of sno-cone wandering down their party dresses. It’s like any other quasi-public Easter egg hunt, with just one defining difference: Half of the families are refugees.

In the parking lot, women in hijab stare intently at bingo boards; many children are tasting cotton candy for the first time; there’s a brief retelling of the Easter story in English, Farsi, and Arabic. The lawn swarms with adults — some of whom are related, some of whom have gradually taken on the role of second parents — as they guide, photograph, and/or chase after kids rooting around in the grass for plastic eggs.

The mostly white, mostly middle-class Presbyterian church had long hosted its own Easter egg hunt, but last year, it joined with an organization called Gateway of Grace, to make it a very different kind of celebration. “We had some concern in the congregation that it might be weird, or awkward,” Pastor Andy Odom told me. “But then we realized that the kids are totally fine with this — they go to school with all different types of people. The only people who’d feel awkward were the parents. So we let go of that, and look at what we got.”

This is Gateway of Grace's second hunt at the Presbyterian church, but they've been putting on the event since 2011. “When my family and I came to the US, some of the most difficult times were around the holidays,” said Samira Page, Gateway of Grace’s founder. “We didn’t know what was going on. We could see everyone giving gifts and going to parties and getting excited, but we had nowhere to go, we had no family, we didn’t have money to buy a pie. I was so homesick; I’d just sit at home and cry. So when I started Gateway of Grace, I thought, There’s no reason any refugee should feel like this on any American holiday — not when God has given to us abundantly.”

Page is an Episcopalian minister, but Gateway of Grace isn’t a church. It’s a ministry with two very specific missions: to decrease the fear of refugees in the Dallas Christian community, and to foster loving friendships between Christians and refugees in need. Page isn’t looking to convert people, but to model Christ’s love — and, in so doing, help change the very temperature of refugees' reception from frigidity and fear to endless warmth and compassion.

Samira Page explains the story of Easter in Farsi, taking turns with the two men standing next to her as they translate in English and Arabic.

Laura Buckman for BuzzFeed News

That might sound like empty rhetoric, or, at the very least, overly optimistic. But for the hundreds of people who’ve worked on both sides of the equation with Gateway of Grace, the experience has been nothing short of revelatory. Over two weeks in Dallas this past spring, I heard many versions of the same idea: that the vast majority of people who are scared of or unwelcoming toward refugees — and Muslim refugees in particular — are people who have never actually met a refugee, or a Muslim. Once you have, something inside you changes.

“When we talk about refugees or Muslims, it’s all abstract,” Page says. “But when you meet a young mom, or see a smiling child, you see: That’s a mom like me. That’s just a child! It melts those walls and barriers.”

In many ways, Page is the perfect messenger to help people understand this. She’s a refugee herself, with a testimony that compels people to shut up and listen. She converted to Christianity; she got her doctorate; she’s an ordained Episcopalian minister. She speaks perfect English. She is, as my mother would say, a “put-together woman.” She’s the exact sort of person that Dallas residents are ready to hear when she tells them to open their hearts.

Every year, she travels throughout Texas and the United States with a very basic message: I was a refugee. God spoke to me. You are a Christian. Listen to God and believe: These refugees are here for us to love them. And that message, articulated in workshops and sermons and one-on-one conversations over the last seven years, has had a significant effect on the Dallas Christian community, across denominations and across the political spectrum.

Page will tell you that this is God’s doing, and if you’re a believer, that’s easy to understand. But it wouldn’t be happening if Page hadn’t built the infrastructure to effectively retrain people’s hearts and minds — this sort of work is far more complex than simply pairing white people who have old furniture to donate with the refugees who need it. It’s about providing a “soft landing,” as refugee assistance programs are often called, but it’s also about creating a world that will stay open and welcoming to these citizens long after they’ve arrived. And this world has been created, in no small part, by some of those who would have considered themselves most resistant to refugees in general, and Muslims in particular.

But don’t ask Page for a specific Bible verse to throw at people who want to keep refugees out. “We hear people talk about this verse or that verse, or the rabbi who said 'welcome strangers' was mentioned 26 times in the Torah,” Page told me. “But look at Genesis to Revelation: The one thing that goes through the scripture is the theme of being a refugee, and God being a savior, and God welcoming us. That’s the main thing! It’s the entire narrative of the Bible. It’s what the whole of Christianity is all about.”

The Canyon Creek Presbyterian and Gateway of Grace Easter Egg Hunt in Richardson, Texas, on April 15, 2017.

Laura Buckman for BuzzFeed News

The Gateway of Grace offices are nested inside the Gaston Oaks Christian Center, a nondescript ’90s-era building in North Dallas with an unusual backstory. For decades, Gaston Oaks Baptist, like so many of the old mainline churches, thrived in downtown Dallas. The white flight of the postwar period convinced the congregation that they wanted to move from downtown to an area closer to the edges of the city, and in 1990, they broke ground on their current home.

As the years passed, the once-robust congregation began to dwindle, and in order to cover operating costs, they invited a Spanish-speaking congregation to hold services in the church. But it wasn’t enough — they simply weren’t attracting new members. In 2001, the church was at a crossroads: It could disband, or it could lean in to the idea of an international ministry, opening its doors to more congregations serving Dallas’s rapidly expanding refugee community. The existing congregation was mostly white, mostly aging, and, like many aging white people, ostensibly set in their ways. But they opted to transform themselves.

More than 15 years later, Gaston Oaks is home to seven different congregations (and hundreds of members) that share the space — three Burmese, one Central African, one Bhutanese, one Spanish-language, plus the original Baptist congregation, which veteran pastor Gary Cook lovingly refers to as “the old white-hairs” (their median age is somewhere around 80 years old). Every weekend, they stagger their worship services; every three months, they come together to worship as one.

Dallas is deliberately making room — in its heart, in its conception of itself — for refugees.

That’s what they did on the Good Friday before Easter, when the service was led by Cook, the worship songs were performed by the Karen Burmese congregation, and Communion was distributed by the pastors from the remaining congregations. In one corner, a cluster of Burmese teens giggled and flirted; toddlers squawked and ran down the aisles. A dozen of the old white-hairs looked on in amusement. “They always talked about how they wanted young people and babies back in the congregation,” Cook told me. “Now they’ve got it — it just might not be the young people they originally envisioned.”

It was unlike any Good Friday service I’ve ever attended. But it was also a portrait of a different and ascendant Dallas, far removed from the images of the ’80s TV show or the Dallas of the Bush family that lives in the imagination of most Americans. This is a Dallas that voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton. A Dallas that’s 49% nonwhite, and where nearly 1 in 4 residents were born somewhere outside of the United States. Islands of near-complete whiteness persist in the Highland Park area — a highly manicured self-incorporated enclave within Dallas proper, known for its exemplary schools and the tendency to pull over anyone who’s not white. But in the rest of Dallas, a child is far more likely to go to school with kids who don’t look like them or speak the same language at home.

This is a Dallas that received 4,000 refugees last year — more than any other metro area. But this is nothing new. Texas’s robust economy and cheap housing make it an ideal location for refugee resettlement: for Vietnamese and Cambodians in the ’70s; for those fleeing the USSR in the ’80s; for Bosnians in the ’90s. Today, it’s become home for thousands of Iranians, Iraqis, Burmese, Congolese, Afghans, Bhutanese, Moroccans, and Syrians fleeing persecution for their religious beliefs, their past work with the American military, or their ethnic identity.

And today, more than ever, Dallas is deliberately making room — in its heart, in its conception of itself — for refugees. Over the last year, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings has reaffirmed his commitment to making Dallas a place where “we treat all of our residents with respect and compassion.” After Trump issued the travel ban in late January, Rawlings denounced it forcefully; in 2015, he declared he was “more fearful of large gatherings of white men that come into schools, theaters and shoot people up” than of Syrian refugees. Even though Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has pulled the state from the federal refugee resettlement program, there was no doubt among the people I spoke with in Dallas that the city government was on their side.

As of January, Texas no longer receives federal funding for refugee resettlement. But that doesn’t mean that resettlement isn’t still happening. Instead of going through the state, federal dollars now go through national nonprofit organizations like Catholic Charities, Refugee Services of Texas, and the International Rescue Committee, which handle the first three to five months after refugees arrive in the States. They find housing, set up food stamps, figure out schools, help with job placement, and provide access to a few hours of English instruction every week.

But after that, these refugees are on their own: to continue learning English, to figure out how to use their debit cards and pay taxes, to communicate with the teachers at their children’s schools, to arrange adequate medical care. To assimilate. And the organizations helping them do that work — dozens of them in Dallas alone — are by and large faith-based organizations.

A few of them — what Page calls “are you saved, do you know Jesus yet” ministries — openly proselytize. But the vast majority simply offer resources: tutoring centers, after-school programs, basic household needs, medical care, and person-to-person connections between Dallas residents and refugee families. “To share their feelings and joys and pain and suffering,” Page says, “that is just such a sacred thing.”

Samira Page prays for Azam, an Iranian refugee, during the Canyon Creek Presbyterian Church and Gateway of Grace Easter Egg Hunt.

Laura Buckman for BuzzFeed News

Samira Page grew up a precocious, “geeky” child of Iranian intellectuals who used to make friends “check out” books from her personal collection with library cards she made herself. When she was 6 years old, she had a vision of the Virgin Mary; when she was 9, she saw The Song of Bernadette and first experienced her call to ministry. “I knew that I was called to the church,” she says. “But I had no idea what the church was.” She was a Shiite Muslim, but describes her Muslim faith as “nominal.”

Page married a man who was Sunni, and gave birth to two sons. But Sunnis were widely persecuted in Iran, and in 1998, the family made the decision to flee the country, trekking over the mountains to Turkey. From there, they hired smugglers to take them to Canada, where they would be able to apply for political asylum. But the smugglers took them to Mexico City and left them in the middle of the city. “We had $500,” Page says. “We had two children. We had no documentation. We had nothing.”

“But God was so amazingly present,” she continues. Page eventually found work tutoring Mexican executives in English; after a year, the family amassed enough money to make their way across the US border at Nuevo Laredo, where they were instructed to wander until border patrol picked them up. The agents, however, didn’t believe they were Iranian; an interpreter had to prove they were fluent in Farsi before they could be granted political asylum.

Just hours after the paperwork for asylum was signed, they were put on a Greyhound bus. At dawn on an early February morning, they arrived in Dallas. In their hotel room, Page opened the phone book and found the local Islamic center, which connected her with an organization that had been preparing an apartment for Bosnian refugees who never materialized. By noon, Page's family was sitting in a fully furnished two-bedroom apartment of their own.

It’s here that Page’s story begins to pivot. Page told the man who brought them to the apartment about her interest in Christianity, and he invited the entire family to Wilshire Baptist Church. Six months later, she was baptized.

“Samira looks you in the eye like she’ll never leave you.”


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