It takes a community
Colorado woman creates a place of refuge
Southwest Kansas Catholic
LAKEWOOD, COLO. “Last night I had a bad dream about the Taliban attacking,” said an Afghani youth as he sat at a kitchen table in a large, white farmhouse.
Behind the house, a tract of farm land juts up against a long apartment complex. It’s an area where the urban landscape literally meets the rural countryside.
A couple of horses romp nearby. Roosters crow in the distance.
Sitting beside “Asghar” at the table, is his friend, Pamir, as well as Renata Heberton, founder of what dozens of child refugees and formerly homeless Americans know as Angelica Village.
While still in her 20s, the 33-year-old purchased a duplex where she began fostering children. Today, she oversees five living spaces — including houses and apartments — where formerly homeless families live and thrive in community.
“A friend and I bought this house for the ‘Unaccompanied Refugee Minors’,” Heberton said of the large, white house. The term indicates a status which the youth fall under as refugees.
“We hosted a ‘GoFundMe’ site [a free internet fundraising platform] for the down payment on the house,” said Heberton, who has a master’s degree in social work. “We raised $30,000 in 10 days. We had incredible support.
“We’re a licensed foster home.”
Asghar lives in Michigan where he is a high school senior. When the Catholic visited, he was in Colorado on Spring Break visiting his friend, Pamir. On April 27, he will have been in the United States two years.
Along with his two brothers and mother, Asghar escaped the grasp of the Taliban and made it to Pakistan. But peace was illusive. The Taliban made its presence known there, too.
Under the status, “Unaccompanied Refugee Minors,” Asghar was able to escape to the United States with the help of Bethany Christian Services and the support of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees — a UN refugee agency). It was in Pakistan where he met his friend sitting next to him in the Colorado kitchen.
“It’s a very different country than what I expected,” Asghar said of his new home in the United States. “The hardest part has been learning English,” and getting used to American cuisine, he added with a laugh.
With the bad dream from the previous night echoing in his head, he said, “Here it is safe. You can work. You can go anywhere you want. The people are nice. They are very kind.”
The soft-spoken Pamir, 17, who like many of the other youth in Angelica Village was sponsored by Lutheran Family Services, escaped Afghanistan with his family to Pakistan when he was “too young to remember.” The teen has only been in the United States four-and-a-half months, and is still getting used to a range of allergies he has suffered.
Abel, another youth — a teenager from Uganda by-way-of the Congo — yawned as he entered the kitchen and began fixing breakfast. The 10 youth living at the home are all on spring break, Heberton said, which is why they were lumbering sleepily into the kitchen at 10 a.m. instead of being off at school.
“When I came here, it was very exciting,” the tall, 19-year-old said. “I’m happy here. It’s better education, better work. In Africa it was hard to get an education. There was not enough money for education. I cannot go to school. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to come here. You can get everything you want with help, or on your own.”
As he spoke, a diminutive girl appeared in the kitchen doorway. She is Jeta, Abel’s older sister. The two, along with their brother, have lived in the home for approximately two years.
When asked, she said she misses her homeland. One can almost feel her heartache for the home she was forced to leave behind.
“I love Africa. Africa is my favorite dream, which I will never forget.”
Other youth living in the home (or who have lived there in the past) include kids from Guatemala, Honduras, and Columbia. She also has fostered youth from Denver, and Native Americans from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and from the Navajo Reservation in the Four Corners region.
Like a typical parent, Heberton helps the youth to discover their path in life, encourages them when it’s time to get a job, and urges them to think about college.
As the interview continued, a truck pulled up to the house with a delivery of fertilizer for a large garden the household maintains.
Heberton hopes to form a community garden one day for all of Angelica Village. In fact, it’s Heberton’s dream that Angelica Village will one day be as closely knit physically — a real village — as the members are spiritually and emotionally.
“We build relationships,” Heberton said. “One of the biggest injustices in the world is when people are not connected in their community. Community allows people to thrive and discover their potential.”
She has help in her amazing endeavor to serve the homeless and the young refugees. Though spread out across a large neighborhood, with members from several countries and cultures, residents of Angelica Village represent one community.
This is at the heart and soul of Heberton’s mission. In fact, she hopes to one day form a “creative art and music space,” a “therapeutic center” for the arts and physical therapies, such as massage, as well as a community corner store providing staples for families and youth in transition.
And she hopes to one day be able to open her doors to those with physical and intellectual disabilities.
As their mission statement reads, “Through love, care, and sustained mutual support, Angelica Village nurtures conscious community living spaces where people with special abilities, families seeking refuge from war and violence, individuals and families experiencing homelessness, and fellow community partners receive what they need and share what they can.”
For more information, including a list of needed items to donate, visit angelicavillage.org.