Is the ‘cowboy state’ finally ready for refugees?

Wyoming, the only US state without a resettlement programme, has never formally welcomed refugees – the plight of those fleeing Afghanistan may now lead to a historic rethink

Monday 18 October 2021 14:15
<p>Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming </p>

Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming

Jim Shumard, the rector of St Mark’s Episcopal Church here, sent the email to his congregation with some trepidation. The plan it announced could be historic – for the parish and for Wyoming. But he knew it could also be divisive. “Together, we are exploring hosting an Afghan family here in Casper,” the headline said in bold blue letters.

Whether that will happen, or even be possible, in this deeply conservative western state remains in question. Wyoming, overwhelmingly white and Christian, has never formally welcomed refugees. Just a few years ago, debate over refugee resettlement spiralled into anti-Islam protests and a Quran-burning, alarming the state’s tiny Muslim population and dashing the hopes of its most prominent refugee advocate.

And this summer, amid a deluge of support for Afghan evacuees spanning political and faith spectra, the leaders of just two states, Wyoming and South Dakota, said they did not want to take in refugees. Wyoming is the only state that has no refugee resettlement programme, nor has it ever had one. That makes the “cowboy state” an island in a nation where states red and blue have for decades welcomed refugees.

Bipartisan enthusiasm for helping Afghans who assisted the US war effort and fled the Taliban takeover has waned somewhat, with Senate Republicans last week attempting to curtail evacuees’ access to aid and identification cards. Even so, 46 states are now preparing to host the refugees – including Wyoming’s neighbours. Idaho is expecting about 400 in the next year. Utah is welcoming 765 in the coming months. Montana will soon receive 75 Afghans.

It is unclear why Wyoming never established a resettlement programme, experts say, but it is fairly clear why it is not doing so now: there is negligible overt support in a state where in 2020, 70 per cent of voters cast their ballots for President Donald Trump, who slashed refugee admissions and banned travel from several Muslim-majority nations.

It’s shameful what America did to the Afghan population ... and it’s even more shameful that Wyoming is not willing to step up to the plate to help these people that our president left high and dry

In a sparsely populated state where just 3.4 per cent of residents are foreign-born, a go-it-alone ethos, some say, translates into hostility toward refugees who might need help finding housing and jobs.

“There’s honestly a little bit of a fear of the unknown,” says Landon Brown, a Republican state legislator who was one of the few to voice support for Afghan resettlement. “They’re afraid of these people coming into Wyoming and living off taxpayer dollars, and maybe the fear of Islam becoming a main portion of our small population.”

Brown says he is generally wary of refugee resettlement but views the Afghans’ plight differently. “It’s shameful what America did to the Afghan population,” he says, “and it's even more shameful that Wyoming is not willing to step up to the plate to help these people that our president left high and dry.”

Yet even though there is hardly any public discussion here about refugees, some see openings now – in part because the need to resettle 95,000 Afghans is so overwhelming. Under Trump, resettlement agencies focused on sending a far smaller number of refugees to hubs with established communities and services. President Joe Biden’s plan to raise the refugee admissions cap to 125,000 will change that, says Allison Duvall, manager for church relations and engagement at Episcopal Migration Ministries.

Duvall says her office has been flooded with interest from parishes throughout the country that want to assist Afghans – including Shumard’s church and two others in Wyoming.

“We – the whole refugee resettlement infrastructure – are going to have to be a lot more flexible and build capacity in places where it didn’t previously exist,” Duvall says. “I think we’re going to see resettlement in places that haven’t seen it before.”

That is the hope of Bishop Paul-Gordon Chandler, who leads the Episcopal Church in Wyoming, the state’s 50-parish diocese. He arrived last year in Casper, a city of 59,000 that rises from windswept grasslands and rocky outcrops, with a decidedly internationalist résumé. Previously a rector in Qatar, he grew up in Senegal and has worked in North Africa and Europe.

Wyoming, he says, became an interest when an arts nonprofit he founded, Caravan, brought an exhibition of Muslim, Jewish and Christian artists to the state in 2016. Chandler says the state has welcomed him more warmly than any other place he has lived.

Chandler insists he is undaunted by past uproar over refugees, though he acknowledges that buy-in will require being “strategic”. But he says he is confident 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 talk on the refugee issue by an Afghan who served as a combat interpreter alongside US and Afghan forces.

“One family, two families, three families – whatever it is, it's not a lot,” Chandler says. “But I think it makes a bigger statement as to what we should be doing, both as a church and as a people, as Americans, in this kind of distinct moment.”

Chandler says he has spoken to Wyoming governor Mark Gordon, an Episcopalian. Gordon listened but did not commit to any particular action. He declined to be interviewed, but there are signs his view has shifted. In mid-August, his spokesman told Cowboy State Daily that Gordon had “no interest” in accepting Afghans. In an email to The Washington Post last week, the spokesman said Gordon was exploring the process through which Wyoming faith groups might host evacuees and would work with the legislature to craft a programme if necessary.

Refugees would need to be “properly vetted”, Gordon said publicly on 31 August. But, he added, “these are remarkable people that have really stood by our side, risking their lives and their families’ lives. They deserve to have compassion from us.”

The extent of that compassion may depend on how much the climate has changed since five years ago, when an effort to launch a resettlement programme ended after vitriolic public debate.

It began with the efforts of a Congolese refugee, Bertine Bahige, who was resettled near Baltimore and later moved to Wyoming, where he became a celebrated elementary school principal in Gillette. With faculty members and students from the University of Wyoming’s law school, Bahige began talking to state officials about creating a programme, according to an account by a professor who was involved.

In 2013, then-governor Matt Mead wrote to federal officials, expressing Wyoming’s intent to pursue a resettlement programme under which federal funds would be distributed through volunteer groups. But things began to change the following year, when Mead was up for re-election. An anti-refugee protest was held at the Wyoming Capitol. One gubernatorial candidate stirred fears about refugees bringing in HIV or ebola.

Mead won. But in the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis the following year, terrorists killed 130 people in Paris, and Mead joined 29 other governors in calling for a halt to the resettlement of Syrian refugees. In Gillette, an anti-Islam group began to protest against a new mosque established by Muslims whose roots in the region went back a century. In 2016, demonstrators burned a Quran outside the mosque.

The refugee resettlement idea fizzled, leaving Bahige and other proponents dispirited. Now, some say, it is hard to imagine reviving it in a state that has faced severe budget cuts amid the pandemic and plunging mining revenue – and that last year elected its most conservative legislature in history.

“I hope that with time people can look at what I’ve been able to overcome and how proud I am to call myself a Wyomingite,” Bahige says. “. . . Refugees can be contributing members of our community and help with diversification.”

But, he added: “I just feel like it’s probably not the right time for those conversations.”

Wyoming, with fewer than 600,000 people, was the slowest-growing state in the west over the past decade, and the state says the 2.3 per cent population growth that did happen is attributable entirely to the addition of people of colour, mostly Latinos. Cheyenne is home to a small number of Somali refugees who first resettled in Colorado. But advocates for immigrants say most do not stay long.

I had friends, but the community is really not welcoming to the other. And that is, I think, wedded in their conservative beliefs: we want to keep Wyoming as Wyoming – whatever that means

“Wyoming needs to do better, especially if they want human beings to move up there,” says Mohamed Salih, a Sudan native who for 33 years lived in Cheyenne, where he was a community college dean and frequently gave talks on Islam. He moved to Denver more than a year ago. “I had friends, but in total, the community is really not welcoming to the other. And that is, I think, wedded in their conservative beliefs: We want to keep Wyoming as Wyoming – whatever that means.”

In Casper, the central Wyoming “Oil City” where Shumard aspires to bring an Afghan family, there is no mosque. Just three exist in the state. On a recent Friday at the Islamic Centre of Cheyenne, a couple dozen men prayed in one room and two women in another – one of whom had driven nearly two hours from her small town closer to Casper.

Outside, cinder-block walls stood in front of the windows. Members – some US-born but mostly immigrants from countries including Nigeria, Pakistan and India – said they built them after a spate of attacks on US synagogues fuelled worry that mosques might also be targeted. Several members said they had been welcomed by Cheyenne’s small Muslim community and knew many kind non-Muslim Wyomingites. But some said they had also faced discrimination. Amr Tawfik, an Egypt-born former railroad engineer who now owns an electronics repair business, says he had been called a terrorist at work and his ex-wife was harassed at Walmart for wearing a hijab.

Life would be even more challenging for Afghan refugees, Tawfik says, in a state he doesn’t think is ready to accept them. “You’re a refugee – Muslim, you wear a scarf, you have an accent and you don’t speak well,” he says. “It’s going to be basically very, very difficult here, if it’s not impossible, to have any relationship or work.”

Shumard says he knows things could be hard for Afghans in Casper. He said as much in his email to his church: there were risks the community would not welcome Afghans, that a refugee family may struggle, that “we may not become friends with them”.

“I’m sure there are probably plenty of people who would not want any Muslims living here,” Shumard said in an interview at St Mark’s, the 130-year-old brick church he has led for six years. “As you get to know people, you find here that the barriers fall away.”

Shumard says he plans to appeal to doubters’ sense of patriotism and duty to allies, and to emphasise the Christian tenet of welcoming the stranger. But he is heartened by both his past and signs he sees now.

One of his previous churches, in Georgia, sponsored a Muslim refugee family from Bosnia, and it was a “fantastic experience”, he says. When he saw news reports about Afghans desperately seeking to escape the Taliban, he says: “I just thought: Why shouldn’t we be offering to help these allies of ours?”

Since then, the vestry at St Mark’s – a board of directors with 12 members who represent the political spectrum, Shumard says – voted unanimously to form a committee to explore hosting a family and take training through Episcopal Migration Ministries. St Mark’s will partner with another church in Casper, The Table.

“We do this in fear and trembling, because potentially it could be divisive,” Shumard says. “But also, I just think it’s important to try to do something in this case.”

A few days after he sent his email in late September, Shumard had volunteers for the committee. One family had offered to help a refugee land a job. A handful of parishioners had praised the effort. If any members were opposed, Shumard said, they had so far kept it to themselves.

© The Washington Post

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