Arkansas has never been the destination for global political and religious refugees seeking asylum that states like New York and California are. But Canopy, a new federally approved refugee resettlement agency in Fayetteville — one of more than 350 religious and secular agencies like it operating across the U.S. —plans to change that.
Then, on Jan. 27, President Donald Trump issued an executive order drastically stemming the march of refugees into the U.S.
Clint Schnekloth, the pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, tends to a large flock of followers, but he also carves out a great deal of time to foster global human rights. In late 2015, after hearing that then-President Barak Obama planned to resettle 10,000 refugees here from war-ravaged Syria, Schnekloth, a former refugee resettlement volunteer, took action. He founded Canopy Northwest Arkansas.
Canopy is an agency of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of nine faith-based resettlement organizations operating in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Clint Schnekloth, Canopy’s board chair, is collaborating with newly hired staff specialists, and more than 450 supporters and volunteers to launch the complicated process of resettling refugee families: securing apartments, furnishings, food, medical care, school enrollment and most of all employment.
In response to President Trump’s executive order restricting refugees from entering the U.S., Pastor Schnekloth decided to host an interfaith prayer vigil at his church, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, inviting a Jewish Rabbi and a Latina activist. A leader from the Northwest Arkansas Islamic Center blessed the vigil.
Congregants prayed for all refugees presently barred from seeking asylum in the U.S., refugees from nations like Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Syria.
“So why do you do that?,” Schnekloth opines, rhetorically, seated in his office, several days after the vigil, at Good Shepherd Church, “Why scapegoat certain groups? I think it is a xenophobic motive to make a specific religious or ethnic group insecure in our country.”
Clint Schnekloth says Northwest Arkansas is a perfect place for refugees, with low unemployment, a low cost of living and a diverse population.
“Northwest Arkansas is a really great and safe community,” he says, “for people who have been vulnerable for a long time to find a new home.”
Allied with other western nations stepping up to host a surge of refugees, the Obama administration opened America’s borders in late 2015, and over the next year processed about 85,000 immigrants, about 39,000 of them Muslim and 12,000 of them from war-torn Syria, according to the Pew Research Center.
Omar Al-muqdad was the first and possibly only Syrian refugee ever resettled in Arkansas, sponsored by Arkansas Catholic Immigration Services, Canopy's sister organization.
“It is extremely important to understand the role that these organizations play in refugee lives when they come to America,” Al-muqdad says. “I was welcome by open arms by everyone I met, they introduced me to the society in northwest Arkansas. I was really touched by the friendly atmosphere when I first arrived.”
Al-muqdad, originally from the southern city of Dara’a, is a vocal participant in Syria's democracy movement. He has a degree in political science and was working as an advocacy reporter in Syria, in opposition to Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime — for which he was imprisoned. After his release, he fled Syria. While living in a Turkish refugee camp, he was granted political asylum in the United States.
Because he had key connections with members of Fayetteville’s Syrian community, the U.S. State Department allowed the resettlement by Springdale-based Catholic Immigration Services to Northwest Arkansas. Now a permanent U.S. resident, Al-muqdad is living in Alexandria, Virginia, where he works as a freelance journalist.
He's producing a documentary about his journey and politics. Had he remained in Syria, he would have likely been imprisoned and tortured, and possibly killed.
“I would say a lot is uncertain right now,” says Emily Crane Linn, Canopy’s resettlement director, who’s worried right now about a refugee family ensnarled by Trump’s ban. “We did have a family from the Congo that we were expecting who had their travel booked. They have been waiting for 13 years, patiently for their case to be processed, and were admitted as refugees, plane tickets in hand.”
Since unfurling its banner a few months ago, Canopy has already resettled 14 refugees, three families. And Emily Crane Linn had hoped to resettle 86 more individuals.
“I can say for certain we will resettle eighteen refugees this year,” she says. “Beyond that I am not sure how close we will get to the goal of 100, but the total for the entire country has been reduced by 65 percent.”
Pastor Clint Schnekloth has faith in Canopy’s mission.
“The story from our scripture is that we are to care for strangers in our midst because we were once strangers in a foreign land.”
And the Americas have long been the preferred foreign land-- for millions of strangers.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State News with Context.