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March 6, 2015

New York Garifuna Mennonites organize assistance for new immigrants

Written by  Chris Fretz

NEW YORK CITY, New York – The Mennonite Garifuna churches of New York City have been working to assist numerous Garifuna immigrants who have arrived in New York since June 2014. To date they have assisted approximately 140 families, helping them with food, clothing, legal assistance, and travel fare to legal and medical appointments.

Omar Guzman, pastor of the Mennonite Garifuna Church of Manhattan, estimates that while the churches have helped about 140 families, at least 200 family units came to New York City.

“We assisted all the families we could, getting all their information, writing their stories, and working to get free legal assistance and representation for their cases,” Guzman said.

The Garifuna, a people group who are descendants of both African and indigenous Arawak people from the Caribbean, are mostly concentrated along the northern coast of Honduras, with other significant populations in Belize, New York City, and other urban centers in the U.S.

In the spring 2014, large numbers of Garifuna immigrated to the U.S. from Honduras to escape discrimination, urban gang violence, and poverty to find work and a more stable life in the U.S. Many of the recent immigrants, which included some unaccompanied children and youth, came to New York City to stay with Garifuna family members and friends that were already living in the city.

An initial concern that Guzman and other church leaders shared was when many of the mothers first went to immigration court they were given a tracking device to be worn on their ankle. Until the devices were removed, the women were unable to legally work in the U.S. and had to charge their tracking devices every three hours.

After observing the strain the wave of immigration was putting on families in their congregations, church leaders partnered with various government agencies and non-profit organizations. Eastern Mennonite Missions and West End Mennonite Church, a congregation in Lancaster, Pa., partnered with the churches to provide additional assistance to Garifuna immigrants.

“Thanks to these partnerships, we were able to get the tracking bracelets removed from the women's ankles, kids registered in school, psychological assistance for many of the youth, and health coverage through a medical plan for many of the immigrants,” said Guzman. “A few applied and qualified for asylum and got a Social Security card and work permit. Others are still waiting for a similar opportunity but we are waiting in hope.”

“We were privileged to partner with the Garifuna Mennonite churches in this effort,” said Amos Stoltzfus, EMM Partnership Coach. “This was clearly a very difficult, challenging situation, but Pastor Omar, Pastor Celso Jaime, and the other pastors had some practical ways of reaching out to their brothers and sisters and were committed to seeing it through.”

Although the urgency for assistance has diminished, Garifuna church leaders know that this will be an ongoing effort. Over the past several months they have held three “legal fairs,” to orient immigrants to the U.S. immigration procedures. A volunteer team continues to give assistance twice a week at the Community Center of Evangelical Garifuna Church of the Bronx. Gregoria Flores, one of the coordinators, is taking a 40-hour immigration certification training in order to better assist Garifuna immigrants.