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KC Faith Community Offers Help for Asylum Seekers 'I Hope for So Many Things'

Dorna Swan, Jody L. Craig and Ahmet Kodanaz, left to right, are members of the board of the new Heartland Welcome and Support Coalition. Dorna Swan, Jody L. Craig and Ahmet Kodanaz, left to right, are members of the board of the new Heartland Welcome and Support Coalition. (Bill Tammeus | Flatland)
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4 minute read

Toward the end of a recent interview with Yeneily Angulo — she’s an asylum seeker from Venezuela now living in the Argentine district of Kansas City, Kansas, with her husband Kerwin and their 3-year-old son Yainner — I asked about her hopes. 

She paused. Then paused again. Through an interpreter from the recently formed nonprofit Heartland Welcome and Support Coalition (HWSC), she finally sighed, “I hope for so many things.” 

Then she began her list: 

  • U.S. government documents that will allow her and/or her husband to work in this country. 
  • A hearing on their asylum request, though because of backlogs, that’s unlikely to happen until at least next year. 
  • A chance to study nursing and become a nurse here. 
  • An opportunity to help her family still living in distressed Venezuela. 
  • And on and on. 

But until any of those dreams can come true, she’s depending on financial, emotional and other kinds of help from the HWSC, which began in April 2023 as an offshoot of the Refugee, Immigrant and Migrant Committee of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Kansas City. 

Since HWSC’s start, it has drawn in volunteers from other churches as well as Jews, Muslims and others who are trying to help people caught up in the stumbling, overwhelmed and at times heartless U.S. immigration system. 

St. Francis parish member Jody L. Craig (with support from her husband, Bill Craig) has been instrumental in creating the coalition and supporting first a Nigerian immigrant family and now the asylum-seeking Angulo family from Venezuela. 

Jody Craig says the whole effort began as a “direct commandment to welcome the stranger. That was our goal. A lot of us also felt that as a country we were failing at that, and we thought we could take on a piece of that and make some things happen.” 

However, the coalition has faced shifting government rules and practices.  

“During the course of our brief experience,” Bill Craig says, “rules have changed at least four times — dramatically.” 

Coalition board member Ahmet Kodanaz adds that it’s clear that “you’re not going to come up with one piece of legislation, in my opinion, that’s going to be a silver bullet” to fix immigration issues. 

So HWSC has tried to stay flexible by devoting its volunteer resources to where it thinks it can do the most good. In that work, it has tried to attract volunteers and board members who reflect the experience of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Besides Kodanaz’s Turkish background, there are members, volunteers and supporters with Panamanian, Nigerian, Chilean, Caribbean and other roots. 

Panamanian native Chely Scarbrough, left, a board member of the Heartland Welcome and Support Coalition, often serves as an interpreter for Yeneily Angulo and her family, asylum seekers from Venezuela now living in Kansas City, Kansas.
Panamanian native Chely Scarbrough, left, a board member of the Heartland Welcome and Support Coalition, often serves as an interpreter for Yeneily Angulo and her family, asylum seekers from Venezuela now living in Kansas City, Kansas. (Bill Tammeus | Flatland)

“Our coalition,” Jody Craig says, “is young enough and nimble enough that we can respond as things keep changing.” 

Jewish Vocational Services and Della Lamb, Bill Craig notes, are the two agencies designated by federal authorities to deal with immigrants here, so “we focus on asylum seekers, who are at entirely different risk levels.” 

When the St. Francis refugee committee balked at taking on the responsibility of supporting a family seeking asylum here, the Craigs decided to do that on their own with help from friends and neighbors. They first volunteered to provide temporary housing for an immigrant family from Nigeria. For several months, that family lived in the only extra bedroom in the Craigs’ Brookside home. 

Today the new coalition works in harmony with the St. Francis committee to help the Angulo family as well as the Nigerian family and others. 

The whole effort, Jody Craig says, “came out of this frustration that our government had not figured out how to handle this. Despite good intentions on the part of many, things were just getting worse and worse.” 

The Angulos got caught up in the creaky system when they decided to escape Venezuela “for political reasons,” Yaneily says through an interpreter, HWSC vice chair Chely Scarbrough, whose roots are in Panama. 

So far, the family continues to need such support because neither Yaneily nor Kerwin is allowed to hold a job. As HWSC board member Dorna Swan, a Caribbean immigrant, says: “We can’t send things and money back to our country and family there if we don’t work here. So, when we come to this country, we’ll work two, three, four jobs. That’s why we moved to America. It’s the land of opportunity.” 

Unless, of course, you can’t legally work because, like the Angulos, you are asylum seekers with no scheduled hearing on your asylum request. 

In the meantime, Yaneily and her husband are attending English classes twice a week through Literacy KC, while their toddler attends preschool at El Centro

The trip from Venezuela to Kansas City, Kansas, for the Angulo family was long, wearisome and dangerous. It took them through Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. Before arriving in the United States, the family had to split up for two months, so Yaneily wound up entering the country in El Paso, Texas, while Kerwin entered through San Diego. 

Now they’re together but almost completely dependent on the coalition and other friends to survive until their asylum hearing. 

But to HWSC board member Kodanaz, there’s no question about what he and other coalition members should do about such families. He was born in the U.S. to Turkish parents and then later lived in Turkey before returning to the U.S. to work. At one point, his family served as a host to several Turkish and other students at the Command and General Staff College at nearby Fort Leavenworth. 

Beyond that, his mother helped rescue people from Iran when that troubled and troubling country went through a regime change with the ouster of the Shah of Iran. Those experiences have left Kodanaz with this belief: “If you have the capacity to help, then you should.” 

Which is what keeps Yaneily Angulo from abandoning her many hopes. 

Bill Tammeus, an award-winning columnist formerly with The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website, book reviews for The National Catholic Reporter and for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is “Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety.” Email him at wtammeus@gmail.com. 


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