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Turlock church to provide safe harbor for asylum seekers
Safe Harbors refugee
A local, abandoned church needs some tender love and care before seven to eight refugee families can move in next month (Photo contributed).

Turlock is no stranger to refugees from the likes of Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, but the city will soon be home to a number of families traveling from the southern border in search of asylum thanks to a San Diego nonprofit that is branching out to the Central Valley.

A local church that has gone unused for quite some time is currently being restored to house seven to eight migrant families thanks to a group of community members and a Southern California shelter network known as Safe Harbors. Aptly named Safe Harbors Central Valley, the idea for a refugee sanctuary in Turlock came courtesy of Turlock resident Stephanie Anderson when she attended a conference on immigration issues a year ago.

She heard about detention centers being used to hold asylum seekers as they await their court dates — a process that can take years, she said — as well as organizations who were offering alternatives. Instantly, she knew she wanted to help and contacted First Presbyterian Church of Turlock’s Pastor Craig Wright, who was in talks with local Presbyterian leaders to close down a church that was no longer being used for worship.

“I thought, maybe we can take that old building and turn it into some kind of refugee center for asylum seekers,” Anderson said. “We’re hoping this will be a nice, long-term solution and our goal with this area is to pick families who have court dates that are further out who are going to be stuck and actually have a place for them to get their lives back together.”

There’s a lot of work to be done at the church to prepare for the 20 people who will eventually call the five-acre property home, like trimming overgrown hedges, building new walls, adding washer and dryer hookups, furnishing the church’s rooms and more. One work day was already held at the property on May 11, and two more will take place on June 1 and June 8.

According to Wright, community support has been outstanding, with local leaders of different denominations coming together to ensure the space will be livable by mid-June.

“That’s the beauty of this — it’s an idea whose time has come. There are going to be some detractors who say, ‘aw, I wish they wouldn’t be here,’ but it’s legal,” Wright said. “It’s bigger than just a Christian thing. It’s just flat-out humanitarian across the board. Our country’s pretty polarized, but a lot of people — conservative or progressive or liberal — they don’t want to harm, they want to help people in need but they don’t know how.”

Safe Harbors Central Valley is the first branch of its southern counterpart, which consists of about nine churches in San Diego. While Anderson and Wright hope that eventually the Central Valley branch can become a network of multiple location itself, they believe the current, first property is a perfect place to start due to its history.

Following World War II when Japanese detainees were permitted to leave the internment camp stationed at the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds, many of them returned to their properties to find they were already reoccupied. The church that will soon serve as a home for asylum seekers from the southern border once housed Japanese Valley residents who had nowhere else to go.

“It just seemed like a really natural fit for another wave of people who need some assistance,” Wright said.

The hope is that eventually those living at the church will become self-sufficient through a farm on the property, Anderson said, and Safe Harbors will help provide English lessons, enroll children in school and get families back on their feet.

Safe Harbors is a nonprofit that operates solely on donations. The Central Valley branch is currently in need of donations, and is looking for items like a refrigerator, freezer, washer and dryer, lawnmower or small tractor, chairs, tables, beds, towels and computers, among other things. Those who would like to donate, participate in a work day or would like more information can contact Anderson at