by Cindy Knoebel

When Amilcar Valencia moved from El Salvador to the U.S. in 2010, he brought with him a wealth of experience as a community builder and volunteer. Now, he’s putting that experience to work as Executive Director of El Refugio, a hospitality house near the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, GA.

Prior to moving here, Valencia, who earned his college degree from the University of Central America (UCA) El Salvador, had worked for FUDESCA, a foundation that promotes education, health care and alternatives for children seeking to escape poverty and violence. When he met Katie, his American-born wife, she was a student at UCA and living at Casa de La Solidaridad, which hosts students from abroad and immerses them into the country’s realidad (reality) and history. She was accompanying people in the same community where Valencia was both helping to run a soup kitchen for children and teaching computer literacy to youth.

Valencia didn’t have a job when he arrived in the U.S. “The most difficult thing about being an immigrant is that you have to start your life all over again from scratch,” he said in a recent interview. “Given my community work in El Salvador, I felt the call to do something similar here. For that, I needed to start making connections. And that meant I had to learn English as quickly as possible.”

Amilcar and Katie Valencia and their son

Valencia’s wife moved to Georgia in 2008 and had a job as a paralegal. Living in the small, bucolic city of Cumming, neither of them knew anyone involved in immigration or detention issues. Slowly, they began to reach out.

“We discovered that a group of people from Georgia Detention Watch were running a visitation program at Stewart,” Valencia recalled. “And they invited us to join them on a visit to learn about immigration and detention issues in Georgia.”

It was during that visit, in the summer of 2010, that the Valencias met Anton Flores, a leader within Alterna, a Christian community of Latin Americans and Americans dedicated to immigrant hospitality and justice.

Gradually, Valencia began meeting others who shared his desire to help immigrants. “Anton invited a group of us to meet and discuss ideas for a place in Lumpkin where families visiting their loved ones at Stewart could rest, grab a meal and have their questions answered about what to expect during their visit,” recalled Valencia.

Flores and enthusiastic immigrant advocates like Valencia rolled up their sleeves and started to search for just such a place.

It happened quickly. By November 2010, thanks to donations from churches and community organizations such as Alterna and JustFaith, they found a small, three-bedroom house to rent just one mile from the high, barbed wire fences of Stewart Detention Center.

Slowly, word of the new hospitality house, named El Refugio, began to spread.

“In the beginning, it was an experiment,” Valencia explained. “The community and most of the volunteers were mostly white, and we had to work hard to build trust with immigrants and their families about why we were here and what we were trying to do.

“It took us a year to get proper funding to offer the services we’d originally envisioned, but we had faith it would work out,” he added.

El Refugio

By any measure, it has worked out very well indeed.

In 2017, El Refugio (which is open on Saturdays and Sundays) welcomed 370 guests, conducted about 615 visits to Stewart and accommodated approximately 160 overnight visitors.

A core group of over a dozen coordinators takes turns hosting guests and coordinating visits. Another forty or so volunteers are involved in a letter-writing program for Stewart detainees. Often, El Refugio facilitates meetings for faith-based and other organizations that want to know more about immigration detention and deportation issues.

What has Valencia learned about conditions at Stewart? “We don’t know everything that goes on, just what we hear from those inside. The abuse and the suffering …” his voice trailed off. “We visit folks who have experienced sexual abuse and who have faced retaliation for speaking out, sometimes by being placed in solitary confinement. Most of the guards speak only English and they communicate by yelling. When a person needs something — medical care, for instance — they can’t easily request it, so often nothing happens. There’s a complete lack of training and sensitivity to those living in a desperate situation.”

Valencia hears heartbreaking stories every day. “Yesterday I spoke with a man there, Wilhen Hill Barrientos, who fled Guatemala to escape gang violence,” he said. “He was beaten up by another inmate and has been suffering migraines ever since. He’s requested medical attention but has not been given a proper medical exam to determine his condition.”

Valencia continued, “Last November Wilhen and several others were put in solitary confinement, ostensibly to protect them from an outbreak of chickenpox — even though Wilhen told guards he’d already had the virus. They were kept in solitary for 40 days, despite a CDC advisory that symptoms of chickenpox will normally occur within only two weeks.”

Hill Barrientos ended up serving a total of 60 days in solitary, and believes he was punished for filing a grievance against a guard who he claims treated him badly — the same guard who, Hill Barrientos told Valencia, decided he needed to be placed into solitary.

The detained individual at Stewart also told Valencia that he’s been forced to work in the Center’s voluntary work program, even though he continues to experience severe pain from his head injury. He asserts he was informed that if he didn’t work, he would be sent back to solitary.

Hill Barrientos has a daughter who was born two and a half years ago. He has never held her. His request for asylum has been denied, a decision that he has since appealed.

As Executive Director of El Refugio, Valencia has heard many similar stories. He can be proud of the organization’s accomplishments. But he’s also looking to the future.

“We’re doing more today than we ever have,” he said. “In addition to our hospitality and visitation services, we also offer a pen pal program, donate clothing and books, refer people to attorneys and work to educate the public about detention issues.

“We’ve been reflecting on our goals as an organization,” he continued. “In the next year or so we want to be able to provide more and better accommodations. We definitely want to stay in this same neighborhood, close to Stewart. Right now we’re sharing our space with SPLC, Southern Poverty Law Center, and a bigger place would also allow us to foster that relationship.”

He added, “When we were developing the idea for El Refugio we always said our goal was to create a welcoming environment for immigrant families and detainees. What we really want is to shut down Stewart. But unfortunately that’s probably a long ways away. In the meantime we’ll continue to provide comfort and hope to our immigrant community here.”

Guests and volunteers share a meal at El Refugio

When asked what he’d really wants readers to understand about El Refugio, Valencia replied, “What we do here is restore people’s dignity, their humanity. Lumpkin is an unwelcoming place. Stewart is a place where freedom is restrained and rights are denied. At El Refugio, we welcome people. We offer our guests more than a room to stay — we accompany them on their visits and feel their pain.

He concluded, “We want to encourage people to enter into relationships with those directly affected by immigration detention and deportation — to get out of their comfort zone, to put themselves in a uncomfortable place so they can listen, understand, and show compassion to the people they visit.​ ​In many cases we think we’re the ones offering hospitality, but in fact it’s those we visit who end up welcoming us. Hospitality connects us all and awakens our ability to discover ​who we are as human beings.”

To read more about conditions at Stewart and Hill Barrientos’ experiences there, click here:

To make a donation to El Refugio, please visit its website at: