SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. (Dec. 20, 2016) -- As Sevier County works to rebuild from deadly wildfires, many displaced immigrants are facing an extra set of challenges, from language barriers to a shortage of available housing and work.
"It was their American dream to be here, to work, and to have what they never had back at home,” said Pastor Susana Lopez, who ministers at a predominantly Latino church in Sevierville called Ministerio Del Espiritu Santo. “And then, in a moment, they're left with nothing again."
In the first two days after wildfires Nov. 28 spread into Sevier County, many displaced immigrants stayed overnight at Lopez’s church.
Lopez said the church has been a saving grace for both undocumented families and other immigrants who, after losing their identification in the fires, have faced fear of seeking help from relief organizations.
"Probably about three or four days after the fire, rumor was going around that Immigration was up at Rocky Top in Gatlinburg. People were texting each other, ‘People need to get out now!’" she said. "But at the church, [they] don't have to go and show proof that (they) live here. (They) know (they) will be helped."
Lopez said many members also face other unique challenges in recovering, including a scarcity of low-cost housing near their former homes.
“Most of them try to save money by living two or three families per home,” Lopez said. “Some of these families are looking for housing and finding two bedroom apartments, or homeowners won’t allow more than so many people.”