By Rebekah Crozier
Reyna Monzon wakes to the sound of her grandson crying in the next room as the sun rises over her Homewood apartment on a Tuesday morning.
She goes about her weekday morning routine of making breakfast and preparing her youngest two children, Josué and Evelin, for school. The apartment is lively this morning, and her children maintain a steady stream of conversation while they eat their breakfast. After Josué and Evelin leave for school, Monzon turns her attention to Yoselin, her eldest daughter. The two women feed Yoselin’s 2-year-old son, Thiago, and then attempt to keep the active toddler occupied for the rest of the morning.
It is a usual morning for Monzon. However, compared to most families in the Birmingham area, Monzon and her children have lived a unique life.
Thirteen years ago, Monzon fled her home country of Guatemala by herself and entered the United States as an asylum seeker.
“Although it was difficult for me, I was able to move forward,” Monzon shared, speaking in her native Spanish.
The Monzon family is just one of millions of families in the United States who arrived seeking asylum from their home countries. Some, like the Monzons, arrived as asylum seekers, while others arrived as refugees. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, nearly 1.8 million people sought asylum in the United States in 2022. An additional 363,059 people qualified as refugees in the U.S. under UNHCR’s mandate in 2022.
Both asylum seekers and refugees seek asylum from their home countries because of violence, war, extreme poverty, discrimination and oppression, among other reasons. Although they have the same reasons for needing to leave their homes, refugees and asylum seekers maintain two distinct statuses. Refugees gain their refugee status from the United Nations before they depart from their home country. However, the process to apply for refugee status can take years, and some people are forced to leave their homes quickly, before they can apply for this status. Those people are called asylum seekers.
Monzon’s reason for seeking asylum in the U.S. is shared by many women in countries fraught with violence, corruption and political upheaval: Her husband was killed.
“To this day, we never found out what really happened,” Monzon recalled with tears in her eyes. “You need money to get a lawyer to investigate and all that. We didn’t want to do that because there were many threats, and after two months it did come out in his autopsy report that he had died from poisoning.”
Her husband’s death created an impossible situation for Monzon. Not only did it make the family’s living situation dangerous, but she also struggled to financially support her three young children as a single mother.
“Since the day we found out, it was dangerous for us,” Monzon expressed, her visage heavy with emotion as she remembered the hard times. “I tried to put my children in childcare so I could work. I started to work hard but I earned almost nothing.”
Monzon ultimately decided to seek asylum in the United States, leaving her three children behind in Guatemala with the hopes that they would one day be reunited.
“It was very difficult for us and for my children because they also went through pain. They suffered many things, but I thank God that He gave me the opportunity to bring them here to be with me,” Monzon said.
When she first arrived in the states, Monzon was detained in California for several months. After her release, she lived in an apartment with three to four other strangers. She could not afford her own apartment until several years after her arrival.
Monzon reached Birmingham in fall of 2021, where she was welcomed by her brother who had already migrated to the area. Josué and Evelin joined her in Birmingham a few months later, and Yoselin arrived in the summer of 2023 with her two-year-old son and another baby on the way. Yoselin came to Birmingham as a single mother as well.
“(Yoselin’s) children’s father abandoned her while she was pregnant and with her 2-year-old baby,” Monzon shared, Yoselin nodding along beside her. “He was not a good man. The children’s father is a violent person, and he abandoned them.”
Monzon said she is glad Yoselin now has a safe environment in which to raise Thiago and the baby soon to be born.
“I know that (my children) also suffered because while they grew up, it was very, very hard for them,” Monzon expressed. “They had to go through many hardships, many bad things, but God was so kind that He gave us the opportunity to meet again and be together again.”
Because Monzon was an asylum seeker, forced to leave Guatemala before she could gain refugee status, she did not have access to the services granted to refugees in the United States.
“For someone seeking asylum, they have no access to healthcare, they have no access to money, and they can’t work legally,” explained Meredith Gartin, president of Alabama Interfaith Refugee Partnership, or ALIRP.
ALIRP partners with asylum seekers in the Birmingham area, supporting them while they pursue official asylum status. The process includes verifying within the federal court system that the asylum seeker had a legitimate reason for leaving his or her home, and this can take years. In the meantime, asylum seekers have a document that says they are seeking asylum, but this document does not grant them any resources from the government and they still cannot legally work. For people like Monzon, who came to the U.S. with nothing, the lack of resources makes it very difficult to build a new life.
“We raise money and funding and grants to do the casework of the refugee office for asylum seekers while they’re waiting for their case to be heard,” Gartin said.
Monzon connected with ALIRP in January 2022. The organization has been helping to provide her with the resources she needs to be fully independent and support her family.
“That’s how it all works – we support her so she can support her family,” said Matthew Buttler, a bilingual case manager for ALIRP.
For refugees and asylum seekers, gaining work visas and finding jobs is a lengthy but necessary process. According to Gartin, asylum seekers must wait 90 days after their case is cleared to apply for a work visa. Then, it could take one to two years for their work visa to be approved.
In the meantime, parents who are accustomed to supporting their children in their home countries find themselves unable to do so in the United States, where their college degrees are not valid and where they do not speak the language. Children end up having to translate for their parents, creating an uncomfortable new dynamic between parent and child, and parents struggle to find transportation to go about their daily errands.
“They are coming from familiar circumstances, familiar people, even if there is danger, to a new place where there are completely unfamiliar people and places,” Buttler said. “It seems safe, and it is safe compared to where they’ve been, but there are also dangers and concerns that they have to worry about here that they wouldn’t have to worry about in their own country.”
Jonathan Diaz, a volunteer with ALIRP, is a first-generation American whose parents immigrated from Mexico before he was born. Although his parents were immigrants and not asylum seekers, he empathizes with the experience of feeling displaced in your own home.
“For my parents, it was an active decision that they made – they decided that it would be better for their kids to have better opportunities. But our partners (asylum seekers) didn’t have that decision. They had to leave, and I think that’s heartbreaking,” Diaz said.
Diaz said he has a heart for creating a community in Birmingham that welcomes these newcomers with open arms so that they feel less alone. “My main goal is finding out how we can make people feel at home,” Diaz expressed.
Diaz and Buttler agreed that feeling isolated in their new homes is one of the biggest challenges immigrants face. One way in which newcomers seek to feel more at home in a new culture is through involvement in religious organizations.
The Birmingham Islamic Society works closely with organizations like ALIRP to welcome Muslims who move to the area. Ashfaq Taufique, president emeritus of the society, leads outreach initiatives for the organization.
“As Muslims, our prophet was also a refugee,” Taufique explained. “Our faith requires us to take care of our brothers and sisters. It is humanitarian, but also from the religious point of view, we take that as a responsibility we have.”
Taufique’s parents migrated from India to Pakistan as refugees, and Taufique himself immigrated to the United States as a college student in 1975.
“Nobody wants to leave their home. Nobody wants to be away,” Taufique emphasized, speaking from his own experience.
Like Monzon and Diaz, Taufique empathizes with the experience of being away from home and adjusting to a culture vastly different from his own. As thousands of others seek to make Birmingham their new home, organizations like ALIRP and the Birmingham Islamic Society strive to provide comfort and resources for these newcomers.
Gartin teaches her students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham that the United States should be seen as a “salad,” rather than the age-old metaphor of a “melting pot.”
“As a salad, we all come together to make a delicious dish, but we still maintain our structure and who we are,” Gartin said. “Is a melting pot really what we should strive for, where we’re all sort of the same and we’ve all melted together? Or can we be a salad?”
In Alabama, 3.5% of residents are immigrants, including asylum seekers and refugees, and an additional 3% are native-born U.S. citizens with at least one immigrant parent, according to the American Immigrant Council. Many U.S.-born citizens remain unaware of the large population of people in their community who strive each day to adjust to living in a new country.
Finding a welcoming community is vital for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Monzon is only one of many Birmingham residents who arrived seeking a new life and who continues to seek a community where their own culture and experiences are valued.