For these asylum-seekers, a Tukwila church offers temporary comfort and refuge
n the kitchen of Riverton Park United Methodist Church in Tukwila, a 15-year-old girl from Angola stands in front of a burner frying tilapia in a shallow pan. She and the rest of her family arrived here less than a month ago.
This is just one small kitchen — four burners and an oven — that's trying to serve the needs of roughly 190 people, who have been trickling in on a daily basis. They’re all from different parts of South America and Africa. Many are staying in tents.
The growing number of migrants looking for asylum here has prompted the city to declare a state of emergency. While local and state governments work to address the influx of asylum-seekers, the people here are no stranger to waiting it out — but they’re excited to move on to the next stage of their lives.
The 15-year-old girl from Angola, who KUOW has agreed not to name due to immigration concerns, has a family of seven to feed — that’s a lot of fish. She’s not alone — she’s cooking alongside another woman from Angola, who she calls "tía," which means "aunt" in Spanish. They’re surrounded by pots and pans of fufu, stewing tomatoes, and a large pot of stewed meat.
Cooking fufu starts out like making grits, but it can be made of a finer cornmeal flour. It’s stirred and beaten until nearly all the water is boiled out, and the consistency is almost like Play-Doh. It’s a meal staple like rice, tortillas, or bread.
“It’s a food, that’s typical African food. One that all of Africans share,” the 15-year-old says in a mix of Portuguese, French, and Spanish.
It’s good, she adds.
Along her journey from Angola, to Brazil, and up through Latin America, the 15-year-old picked up Spanish. In total she speaks four languages, including Lingala, a Bantu language spoken in parts of Central Africa which she learned from her mom. Now she’s learning a fifth language.
“Recently, I started speaking English. Because I’ve been here for two and a half weeks, I don’t have much time here,” she says, again in a mix of mostly Spanish and Portuguese.
nce a burner is open for use, it’s quickly taken up by another pot or pan to get another meal going for a different family. Outside the kitchen you can still smell the frying fish. There’s a large lounging area out here, and a line of people has formed for something else.
On Mondays legal help stops by the church offices. A 26-year-old woman from Honduras is one of the people waiting.
“The stove is working all day long,” she says. “From 6:00 in the morning until 9:00 at night, and the washer and dryer are getting worked the same.”
There’s a lot of waiting and pre-planning that needs to happen, and most basic tasks take all day to get done. The 26-year-old Honduran woman, who KUOW has also agreed not to name due to immigration concerns, says she hopes that they can get a new dryer donated soon — the one they have isn’t working properly.
Being an asylum-seeker means a lot of waiting. But she’s excited, especially about the "American dream."
“We all ask for the American dream, a dream to fulfill, goals that we have, at the very least our children can grow up and do something with their lives.”
She left two countries in Latin America because of run-ins with gangs — an issue not easily covered in an asylum case.
Georgina Olazcon Mozo, is the Director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Washington. She says in previous years, cases like the 26-year-old Honduran woman’s would have been much easier. But Trump-era policies changed who qualifies for asylum, and they continue under Biden's administration.
“There's evidence by human rights groups out there that women are persecuted and killed in countries just because they are women,” she says. “But the way that decisions are made in our legal system — that is not a valid reason to be granted asylum.”
Asylum-seekers are not the same as refugees. Both face displacement and persecution, but people looking for asylum can declare their intentions at the border. They can also cross undocumented into the United States but need to seek legal asylum status soon afterward. It can take years for a case to be fully processed.
To claim asylum, the federal government says people have to be inside the United States and able to demonstrate that they were persecuted or have a fear of persecution in their home country due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or belonging to a particular social group.
Olazcon Mozo says that interpreting who falls into a vulnerable social group is the most tricky designation, and the definition has shifted in recent years.
At Riverton Park United Methodist Church, there are other resources aside from housing, food, and cleaning. There’s a large room in the back that looks like a small thrift store. Large national flags are hung up, including the Angolan and Ukrainian flags. The room also contains various household goods, bedding, and clothing for people to use.
n the lounge space of the church, kids bang on a piano, while women do box braids. This church is lived in and is being used in every way imaginable.
That’s how Pastor Jan Bolerjack wants it. She’s helping coordinate resources for people living in the tent encampment outside of the church. She says a few years back, a Venezuelan family that was living in the streets of Seattle arrived here looking for help. The church was providing shelter for homeless families at the time.
“These folks have ended up here at Sea-Tac, and had word of mouth or some other way of knowing that this would be the welcome place to come to,” she says. “This is how they arrive: with a backpack on their back, and usually either walking from Sea-Tac or getting a cab.”
Bolerjack wonders: If these people weren’t Black or brown, would the country be having a similar response?
She says government officials and nonprofits committed to helping the migrants during a community town hall last week.
“We're hoping for housing, we're hoping for some immediate relief with some bigger tents that are waterproof, some case management, some support here on-site for both the costs that we're incurring for this, but also all the things that folks need, like medical care.”
Bolerjack also hopes that many of the asylum-seekers are placed in a more substantial shelter soon, which doesn’t separate the community and offers resources like case management.
The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services says a task force is forming with representatives from the Governor’s Office, the state legislature, and county and city representatives. No deadline has been set yet.