Editor's Note: Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) spoke with more than a dozen members of the local refugee community on Tuesday afternoon at St. Francis Episcopal Church to assure them of continued support from his office and the Center for Refugee Services. Below are his prepared remarks. Our coverage of the family gathering will be published later in the day.
Good afternoon everyone, it’s good to see so many of you again. For those of you whom I have not yet, my name is Ron Nirenberg, and I’m your District 8 City Councilman.
We are here today because I think its very important for us to remind each other that we are neighbors and that we’re all seeking to build a better community together. And together, we will.
So let me be clear: Just like every San Antonian, you are welcomed here, you are valued members of our community, and I will do everything I can to make sure you will continue to get strong and vocal support from me and from organizations like the Center for Refugee Services and many others.
Each of us has a different story about how we got here. Whenever I visit with neighbors about your stories, I try to imagine the suffering and hardship caused by war and famine and natural disaster. To imagine the perpetual fear of living with political and religious persecution. To imagine leaving behind everyone and everything I know, and seeking refuge thousands of miles away, without any guarantees for the future. I try to imagine a young child being taken away from his teachers and classmates, having to learn a new language and adjust to a different culture.
The truth is, I don’t know if I could do it. I don’t know if I could find the strength and courage that I see in the fathers, mothers, and children that find refuge in our city. Their stories inspire me, and they make me appreciate the things that we often taken for granted.
Early on as a councilman, during a Catholic Charities event, I met a young man named Rehani, from an African village. When he arrived in San Antonio, he began working his way through high school, receiving his GED. He went on to San Antonio College, where he prepared himself to transfer to a university, pursue an International Business degree, and return home to help those who were left behind.
In the time I have been councilman, I’ve gotten to experience the sense of optimism and hope that is strong in San Antonio’s refugee population. Now, we are working to make sure that strength is matched by native San Antonians, eager to lend a helping hand.
Almost 100 years ago, my family came to the United States by way of Ellis Island in New York. They were fleeing the fascism that was spreading across Europe, and like thousands before them, their first glimpse of the United States was the Statue of Liberty, a monument to those who are seeking refuge in a free land. The statue stands as a testament to the opportunity and diversity that embodies the American ideal.
The late Senator Robert Kennedy once said that “America’s answer to the intolerant man is diversity, the very diversity which our heritage of religious freedom has inspired.”
There is a tendency in times of terror to point the “finger of suspicion” at someone – anyone. We have seen this play out on the campaign trail, at state houses, and even in the halls of the Congress. The problem with this tendency is that we let the fear overshadow who we are as Americans.
Whether you are a new American or have been here for generations, we are united to stand against fear.
This is especially true in San Antonio. Ten years ago, this community rallied together and showed our compassion toward those escaping famine and tragedy in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. After horrific shootings at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin three years ago, our religious community came together and said that an attack on one religion is an attack on all. After unimaginable hate crimes against the Jewish community in a neighborhood just a mile from my home, signs lined the streets saying “Stand Against Hate” and “I Support My Neighbors.”
San Antonio’s institutions embody this ethos. Catholic Charities and their volunteers help families resettle, and they aren’t alone. The medical community, VIA Transit, Northside and Northeast Independent School Districts and our city’s vibrant faith community all provide a foundation of care that helps you get on your feet and build a future in our city. The City of San Antonio has been working to bring them all together. None of these institutions has let the fleeting politics of the moment veer us from our ultimate values.
But the most important people in this process are each and every one of you. For two years now, we have been celebrating together at art contests and World Refugee Day. We have built community gardens and will hopefully, one day, build a soccer field right here at St. Francis. Each of you has stepped up to the plate to help make our community a better place.
When you came to the United States, you came as a refugee with no home. But today, you are Americans, you are Texans, and – most importantly – you are San Antonians.
You are welcomed, and this city will continue to treat you with the dignity and respect every San Antonian deserves.
Thank you for the privilege of serving you.
*Top image: Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) speaks with refugees. Photo by Scott Ball.