Refugees gather at Capitol as House approves resolution supporting refugee resettlement in Arizona




Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, speaks at a press conference surrounded by refugees and other immigrants. She co-sponsored, along with Peoria Republican Rep. Tony Rivero, a resolution declaring that lawmakers support resettling refugees in Arizona. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Refugee and immigrant families visited the state Capitol on Thursday to support a resolution proclaiming that “members of the Legislature welcome and declare their support for resettling all types of refugees in Arizona.”

House Concurrent Resolution 2027, titled “Supporting Refugees in the State of Arizona,” was introduced by Rep. Tony Rivero, R-Peoria, and co-sponsored by Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe.

Rivero said at a press conference Thursday that he is an ally and a friend for the refugee community. The resolution is a step in recognizing refugees are welcome and valued, he said.

“My children shouldn’t have more rights than (refugee and immigrant) children,” Rivero said. “We all aspire for better healthcare, for better education, to be able to realize our dreams. And we should all, as humans, have that ability.”

Amos Nsenga, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, wore a white suit and black dress shoes on to Refugee Day at the Capitol. His wife, Hadija Bamurange, donned a colorful dress and their young son, Eric Amos, jumped around, stomping his Spider Man tennis shoes.

Nsenga lived for 15 years in a refugee camp in Uganda, he said, and he wants his friends in Africa to experience the peace he has found in the United States.  

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Hadija Bamurange (left) and Amos Nsenga (right) are refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo. They stand with their son, Eric Amos, and participated in Refugee Day at the Capitol on February 28, 2018. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

For Anwuli Onwuta, a student at Arizona State University and child of Nigerian immigrants, that’s what the American dream is about: finding peace, being happy and surviving.

“We should not feel fear, but we should feel honored that we are seen as a country that is safe and welcoming,” Onwuta said. “We want to continue to be seen as a country that people look to for safety and opportunity, like my family once did.”

The U.S. is accepting the lowest number of refugees in decades. In fiscal year 2016, Arizona received a record 5,115 refugees, when the national cap on refugees was 85,000. When President Donald Trump took office, he slashed that ceiling by more than half and lowered it again to 30,000 for fiscal year 2019. In fiscal year 2018, 1,392 people resettled in Arizona, according figures from the Department of Economic Security. These figures also include asylees and victims of trafficking.

So far this fiscal year, 330 people have resettled in the state.

“It’s important for people to realize that no one choose to be a refugee,” Onwuta said.

She is also a member of Unite Here Local 11, a union representing hospitality workers. She called on state leaders to challenge rhetoric and reaffirm Arizona is a safe and welcoming space for immigrants and refugees.

“The rich culture of Arizona comes from the contributions made by thousands of immigrants and refugees that we have supported and nurtured,” Onwuta said. “Do not allow the current president to make vicious policies that are destroying families to further tear apart the history and delicate community of care that we provide within cities throughout our state.”  

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Anwuli Onwuta participated in Refugee Day at the Capitol on February 28, 2018. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Salman said the resolution which is not a binding document and is effectively a symbolic statement is a “historic first step in what support would look like” for refugees and immigrant communities in the state.

“In the back drop where there’s a lot of rhetoric that mischaracterizes this community and often tries to vilify this community, the irony is that this community and the people abroad who still face displacement from their original homes are the most vulnerable people on the planet,” Salman said.

Araceli Villanueva, who’s from Mexico and has lived in the U.S. for 10 years, attended Refugee Day at the Capitol with her husband, Kathem Muhammad.

“We really want (legislators) to know that refugees are good people,” Villanueva said. “They are trying to start their life and be successful here in America.”

Villanueva is an organizer with the Arizona chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. She wants the Muslim community to be represented in the conversations around refugees.

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Araceli Villanueva (right) attended Refugee Day at the Capitol with her husband, Kathem Muhammad (left), on February 28, 2018. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

A travel ban on Muslim majority countries has left many families in Arizona disconnected from their relatives, said Mukhtar Sheikh, with the Somali Association of Arizona.

Sheikh arrived in the state in 1996 as a refugee and earned a bachelor’s degree in education and a masters in sustainability from Arizona State University.

“I really want Arizona to be refugee-friendly. Refugees are people that have no country, no place to call home,” Sheikh said.

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Mukhtar Sheikh was a refugee from Somalia and now is part of the Somali Association of Arizona. He attended Refugee Day at the Capitol on February 28, 2018. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Sheikh had some ideas on what support could look like: Arizona could fund programs in education or a career center to help refugee adults work in the fields they already have experience in.

“A program to put them on a fast track to catch up so they can practice the professions they had they’re engineers, nursers, doctors, mechanics,” Sheikh said.    

Brian Mecinas, a senior at Paradise Valley High School, missed school on Thursday to be at the Capitol. He’s a first-generation American, the son of Mexican immigrants, and wants to push back against the “stigma and hate on refugees and immigrants.”

“There’s a need for youth to step up and take action and encourage lawmakers to do something, to clarify we are coming here to work and have access to opportunities,” he said.

Mecinas called the resolution “a moral standard.”

“It’s very important to step up, to have legislators reclaim America’s moral standards,” he said.

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Brian Mecinas is a senior at Paradise Valley High School and attended Refugee Day at the Capitol on February 28, 2018. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

HCR2027 passed unanimously on Monday in the House and was sent to the Senate.

Speaking to the refugee community, Rivero said Thursday it’s his goal for the symbolic statement of HCR20257 to provide hope.  

“I hope that, with this resolution, even if it’s a little bit, that your faith has been rewarded, that you matter, that you count, that you are going to be represented and that you have support from both sides of the isle,” he said.

Laura Gómez
Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for Spanish-language news and feature reporting. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.

1 COMMENT

  1. First of all, I want to sincerely thank Rep. Athema Salma D-Tempe and Rep. Tony Rivero R-Peoria for annexing this historic bill HCR20257 that will creates a new dawn day and enhanced a sustainable breathing ground for immigrants migrating into Arizona. I belong to a non-governmental organization called Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) here in the state of Arizona. It was quite unfortunate that i miss this great moment where history is written again.
    Refugees in Arizona have indeed create a huge impacts to the work-force in the state while improving on their respective life-styles. Immigrants will continue to make impacts through orienting and integrating new refugees arrivals about the cultures and every-day live.
    Thank you Laura Gómez Rodriguez for covering this event of a life-time and spreading the message of hope to the community at large.
    Thank you

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