By Morgan Montalvo
Advocates for San Antonio's refugee community gathered at the Institute of Texan Cultures Monday evening to develop assistance and assimilation strategies during what many attendees consider a current political climate of non-acceptance.
The two-hour workshop was the latest in a series of "Cultural Conversations" organized by District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg and State Sen. Jose Menendez.
Facilitators like University of the Incarnate Word history professor Lopita Nath focused on the contributions the Alamo City's refugee population is making to the local economy, especially on the Northwest side. She says while San Antonio has largely embraced its refugee community, other U.S. towns and cities are not always as patient or tolerant.
"The most important challenge that the refugees face is the culture shock," said Nath, who teaches a class on refugee issues and outreach, "and now it's the misunderstanding that accompanies them wherever they go."
Nath says in a time when the term "immigrant" generates heated debate, refugees are often judged by the same criteria as people who enter the U.S. illegally. She says to qualify as refugees, individuals and families must endure an application and security vetting process than can take as little as two years, but usually takes far longer.
Monday's event was also attended by students,. many of whom are active as refugee advocates, and interested individuals such as Kelli O'Keefe, a Bandera business owner concerned over what she says is an increase in visible hate speech and anti-immigrant political posturing.
"It's kind of funny,"O'Keefe said, "not funny 'ha, ha,' but it's kind of crazy, because people are a little bit more bold now to state some opposition, or even feel like it's okay to have symbols that may alienate other people."
The goals of the Cultural Conversations series are to increase awareness of, and spark dialogue about local issues and, in the process, promote tolerance and community.