How a mother and her two girls are celebrating Christmas inside a Utah church while avoiding deportation

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Vicky Chavez spends time with her 7-year-old daughter Yaretzi in their room at the First Unitarian Church on 1300 East in Salt Lake City on Dec. 14, 2018.

A red betta swims around its tank on the countertop, circling past a microwave on the left and a half-eaten package of Oreos to the right. From across the room, Yaretzi, 7, declares: “His name is Bruce.”

Her mom repeats the name, rolling the “r” with her Honduran accent. “Brrrrrruce,” Vicky Chavez says. Yaretzi tries to mimic her. “Baaar,” she sputters.

Chavez was explaining why her holiday gift to Yaretzi can’t be a panda: “You already have a fish to take care of, mi corazón.” She proposes a cat. Yaretzi shakes her head; she thinks a cat would eat Bruce.

But Chavez does want to give her daughters, Yaretzi and 17-month-old Bella, the closest thing to a Christmas that she can this year. It’s a challenge when they’re stuck inside a church.

She and the girls came to live here at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City nearly a year ago, facing deportation and seeking sanctuary. Chavez had three plane tickets for Honduras but changed her mind before the final boarding call, fleeing to these red bricks and this towering steeple.

The congregation converted a Sunday school classroom on the second floor into a tiny apartment, and Chavez hasn’t gone outside since. She can’t.

Bruce sits on the counter in a corner of the room, and Chavez, Yaretzi and Bella share a bed in the middle with white metal posts and a plaid green and blue blanket. By the window, there’s a tiny stained-glass Santa. Below the No. 205 on the outside of the door, there’s a sign that notes, “Residencia privada.”

This will be the family’s first December living above the chapel on busy 1300 East, hiding from officials tasked with carrying out President Donald Trump’s orders to repeal protections and deport immigrants like them. It’s a Christmas confined.

Chavez offers another alternative to Yaretzi: “I thought you wanted a bike from Santa,” she says with a laugh.

Her daughter twirls her two long pigtails, considering whether that would be better than a panda. “I do want a bike,” she responds. “A panda bike.”

“I don’t even know what that would look like,” Chavez teases. “Like put ears on it?”

“Yeah, and paint it black and white.”

Yaretzi giggles from the bed, where she’s coloring pictures below a wall covered in artwork she’s already given her mom. “I love you” is spelled out in paint fingerprints, and stick figures wear pink crayon lipstick.

Chavez, now 31, brought Yaretzi to the United States in June 2014. She says she was fleeing by train from a violent and abusive boyfriend who repeatedly threatened to kill her. She requested asylum to live in Utah, where much of her family had already immigrated. Her application was refused. She appealed. A years-long court battle is ongoing; she’s asking the 10th U.S. Circuit Court to overrule the latest denial under an administration that seems unlikely to change course.

She hopes her appeal will be granted and that this will be the only Christmas that Yaretzi and Bella have to spend here, where even if she could afford to buy her daughter a panda bike, the girl wouldn’t be able to go outside to ride it.

“It’s hard. It’s really, really hard,” Chavez says. “But I don’t have another option.”

‘Our tradition’

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Vicky Chavez, a Honduran woman who has been living in a Utah church with her two daughters, photographed on July 9, 2018. Chavez wears a bracelet that reads: #teamvicky #sanctuarymothers #togethereverythingispossible

In another classroom upstairs, Chavez cuts open the box for a gingerbread house and pulls out the bags of decorations. Gummy trees. Holly-shaped sprinkles. Peppermint swirls. “And frosting!” Yaretzi shouts.

She sneaks a piece of candy off the counter, chews and cringes. “Ew. Yellow.”

The girls have never decorated a gingerbread house. But someone donated the kit and thought it would be fun for them to try this year. A lot of what they’re doing to celebrate Christmas, a lot of what they do to live here every day, comes from the community.

She relies on volunteers to get her groceries each week, including two boxes of Froot Loops for Yaretzi and the spicy serrano peppers that Chavez likes. The volunteers babysit the kids while their mom takes English lessons. And they stand at the front of the building in shifts 24 hours a day, in case any immigration officials try to come in. So far, none has.

One woman brought in extra rolls of wrapping paper. A friend dropped off a paperback copy of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” A few folks have slid Christmas DVDs under the door. The gingerbread kit came with a bow and a note wishing them cheer.

Chavez is willing do anything she can to make this year special for her girls. She hands Bella a little cookie from the box to decorate, and the toddler shoves it in her mouth.

“Ay! No,” the mom says with a laugh. “Don’t eat it. Not yet.”

She helps Bella smear the cookie in red frosting. “Can you say rojo?” Chavez asks her. Bella just licks her fingers.

Two years ago this month, a federal judge first ordered Chavez’s removal from the country. She was pregnant with Bella at the time and getting ready for Yaretzi’s sixth Christmas, their second in the United States.

Chavez would bring Yaretzi over to her parents’ house in Riverton and help her mom set up a tree with red bows and candy canes and ornaments made out of popsicle sticks. She would go shopping afterward to pick out a new doll for Yaretzi’s Lalaloopsy collection, one with bright pink hair and a tutu. On Christmas, she ate dinner with her family. Her four siblings would fight over which NFL team is the best and her dad would end the conversation by repeating “Green Bay, Green Bay, Green Bay” until everyone stopped. They’d have turkey, yams, rice and wine. “It was our tradition,” Chavez says.

As she puts a snowflake sprinkle in the middle of Bella’s gingerbread cookie, she talks about how her family likely won’t come to the church to eat. She can’t go shopping for her daughters. She looks around online, but most of the toys she can’t afford. The volunteers, whom she loves, brought in the tree with purple, blue and gold ornaments that she doesn’t recognize.

She’s grateful. She just misses having her own celebrations and her own decorations and her family around her. “I can’t even open the door,” Yaretzi says, as she puts frosting on the cookie roof and starts singing “Jingle Bells.”

Before she left Honduras, Chavez would celebrate Christmas at her grandma’s home with tamales and so many people shoved in the tiny space that she could hardly breathe. At midnight, they’d pile outside and watch fireworks.

Even if she went back there now, it wouldn’t be the same either. Her abuela has since passed away. And the rest of her family is here.

‘We belong together’

Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Vicky Chavez wraps Christmas gifts for family members as she stays at the First Unitarian Church on 1300 East in Salt Lake City on Dec. 14, 2018.

While Bella naps and Yaretzi finishes the gingerbread house, Chavez starts wrapping a few presents.

She picks up a glittery piece of tissue paper and folds it around a box. “Abajo,” she tells Yaretzi, pointing to the tree when she’s done. Chavez says most things in Spanish before repeating them in English, which she is learning quickly here in the church. “Under.”

Yaretzi grabs the gift and slides it below the plastic green branches, then cartwheels past a whiteboard with a list of Utah’s six federal representatives and senators. Congregants strategize in this room, down the hall from Chavez’s bedroom, about how to reach out to politicians to advocate for the family. This church, built in 1927, was founded on progressive activism.

The Unitarian group broke away from the dominant religion in the state, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in the late 1800s. There’s no strict adherence to a set of beliefs about God here. They instead preach a Christian commitment to social justice.

The members, who after Trump’s election helped create and now run the sanctuary program, take that seriously.

“Most fundamental to our faith is the belief that every person deserves a certain measure of respect, and that is why this church has opened its doors to a neighbor,” the Rev. Tom Goldsmith said on the night Chavez came to stay.

On Christmas, she and her girls will have been here for 329 days.

After she fled to the United States in 2014, Chavez gained a small bit of protection under an executive action signed by then-President Barack Obama that said immigrants who committed no crimes and paid taxes wouldn’t be prioritized for deportation. Trump reversed that rule in 2017, and the proceedings for Chavez’s deportation began.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement called her at the hospital where she gave birth to Bella, telling her to go back to Honduras. She was being deported. On Jan. 30, when her younger daughter was 6 months old, she came to this church instead.

It’s mostly just courtesy that stops ICE from entering sensitive places like schools or hospitals or places of worship; there’s no formal law preventing officers from doing so. But there are at least 40 cases in the United States, like Chavez’s, with families seeking safety from deportation in churches. All have been well publicized. None have been forced out of a chapel. Most have happened since Trump took office.

“There’s still a lot of worrying,” says Easton Smith, an organizer with Red de Solidaridad, a grassroots Utah group that has taken on Chavez’s case. “Vicky wouldn’t be in sanctuary if it weren’t for this administration.”

Smith is the one who told her to come to this church. “It wouldn’t look good if officers came in here,” he says. The volunteers have been trained to pull out their phones and broadcast it if they do.

As Chavez waits — maybe one year, maybe two, maybe “cinco años” with the backed-up court system — this faith community has told her to stay as long as she needs to. It’s felt so much like home that sometimes Bella stands in front of the chapel doors on Sundays when congregants are walking in and shouts, “No. Mine.”

Several of the women who attend services here have brought Chavez totes full of yarn so she could learn how to crochet, partly to stave off boredom but also to sell projects to family and friends to earn a little cash for gifts. She taught herself with a couple of YouTube videos and a lot of free time. She wants to own a business someday called “Beya” — a combination of her girls’ names that also sounds like “bella,” the Spanish word for beautiful.

When she’s finished wrapping presents, Chavez goes back to her room and starts crocheting a few flowers to finish the orders she has to make before Christmas. Her fingers move quickly between the pink yarn and the metal hook.

“Crochet is her thing,” Yaretzi says. “I just need to stay busy,” Chavez adds.

In their 12-by-18-foot bedroom, Bella rocks on a tiny pink pony chair. Yaretzi’s last school picture is hanging on the wall by her mom’s work desk; she smiles with a bright red bow on her head. She now studies with a teacher who comes to the church.

She says Bruce is like their holiday decoration because he’s a red fish circling around a green tree. A poster near his tank has a drawing of the three of them from their first week here that says, “We belong together.”

Chavez’s biggest fear is that she could be separated from her girls. Bella was born here and is a citizen; Yaretzi wasn’t and isn’t.

‘Protection, safety, love’

Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Seven-year-old Yaretzi plays on a row of pews at the First Unitarian Church on 1300 East in Salt Lake City on Dec. 14, 2018.

Chavez walks into the church kitchen, a massive room with a huge stove and steel countertops, to the pot of chicken soup that’s been stewing all morning. She fills a bowl, crunching blue tortilla chips over it and breathing in the broth.

Her family always makes this soup in the winter. “Cóme,” she says to Bella. “Eat.”

She’s making the girls the foods that her parents used to make for her. She’s joined the church choir and sings the holiday program for them as they watch from the pews. She’s painted pictures of Rudolph, using their handprints as antlers. She’s spent every Sunday this month watching Christmas movies from their bed with the subtitles in English so she can practice.

On the community board outside the kitchen, next to an ad for a dog walker, glossy pictures show Chavez and her daughters over the past year: Yaretzi clinging tight to a puppy as he runs down the church hallway, Bella being cradled by a firefighter who came to visit, the girls dancing to the Macarena on the hardwood floors with their black hair flying wildly above their heads.

They’re growing up in this church. Yaretzi is learning to read and can now write her own name. Bella took her first step, celebrated her first birthday and said her first word, “mama.”

There are things Chavez regrets that she can’t give them this Christmas: a bike or a panda — even a stuffed animal one; time with their grandparents; a separate room for Yaretzi; experiences; traditions. She can’t send Yaretzi into the church yard to build a snowman like they used to. “We always made a snowman,” she says.

Chavez has traded that, for now, for sanctuary, for “protection, safety, love,” she notes. “No more tears.” She has traded it in the hope that eventually she will be able to give them everything they want: a life in America.