Domestic violence survivor marks one year of sanctuary in Richmond church to avoid deportation

Abbie Arevalo tears up Thursday as she sees a group of marchers approaching the First Unitarian Universalist Church where she has been staying for the past year. Photo by Gessler Santos-Lopez

Hannah Eason, News Editor

Community activists marched Thursday prior to a 24-hour vigil marking the one-year anniversary of the day Abbie Arevalo started living in sanctuary in a Richmond church to avoid deportation.

The mother of three from Honduras was ordered deported last year shortly after then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced domestic violence — which was the factor that pushed Arevalo to flee her home country — would no longer qualify as a reason to grant asylum.

Arevalo’s family and supporters gathered at the intersection of New Kent Road and Westover Hills Boulevard before trekking across the Boulevard Bridge and through Maymont Park. The rally concluded at The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond, Arevalo’s home for the last year. Immigration Customs and Enforcement, known as ICE, generally doesn’t make arrests in churches.

A child holds up a sign during the Fighting for Home march on Boulevard Bridge on Thursday. Photo by Gessler Santos-Lopez

Arevalo says leaving her home country — and the youngest of her two daughters — was the most difficult thing she’s ever done.

“The last thing I did was breastfeed her,” she said through an interpreter. “I knew I wasn’t going to do that again.”

“Freedom, no cages,” could be heard echoing from the ralliers. Many wore purple to symbolize Arevalo’s favorite color, which has also been associated with domestic violence awareness.

“If I had not found a sanctuary, and they had deported me, it would have been like signing my death sentence,” Arevalo said during the vigil.

Arevalo’s ex-partner in Honduras has threatened to kill her; her decision to live in the church was life-or-death.

Abbie Arevalo gives a speech to start the 24-hour vigil held at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Thursday. Photo by Gessler Santos-Lopez

“We’re in a society where we’re judged a lot just for being women,” Arevalo said. “Like every woman, I want to be independent.”

During the opening of the vigil, Abbie Arevalo and her sister, Claudia Arevalo, spoke about the hardships they faced in Honduras and the pain of leaving everything behind.

A group of marchers walks along the sidewalk on Thursday. They were marching in support of Abbie Arevalo, a Honduran-born asylum seeker staying in a sanctuary space in a Richmond church. Photo by Gessler Santos-Lopez

“The immigration system criminalizes us, attacks us and persecutes us every day in the United States,” Claudia Arevalo said through an interpreter. “We’re in danger of losing our lives if we go back to our country.”

Claudia Arevalo says her family’s story can encourage others not to give up.

“It’s an experience that has taught us to be closer, so that we can deal with this situation,” she said.

Interpreter Flor Lopez helped organize the event and has been involved with Abbie Arevalo’s cause from the beginning.

“I’ve learned the immigration system creates a lot of barriers for people,” Lopez said. “Even people who are doing things the right way.”

Lopez said the high cost of lawyers and language barriers often complicate the immigration process.

Other events were held at the church as part of the 24-hour event, including musical worship, multi-denominational worship, and singing and dancing throughout the day.

The vigil ended at 8 p.m. Friday with a community potluck dinner.

For more information, visit facebook.com/HandsOffAbbie.

This story was updated on June 22.

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