Pennsylvania church welcomes Syrian refugee family
Taking in refugees from Syria wasn’t the initial plan of Forest Hills Mennonite Church in Leola, Pa.
“In February, our winter Bible school focused on immigration,” lead pastor Jon Carlson said. “This was long before the Syrian refugee crisis made headlines. Syria wasn’t on our radar.”
But several people in the congregation wanted to welcome a refugee family from somewhere in the world, and they began working with Church World Service to do that.
With the Nov. 3 arrival of the seven-member Khilo family from Syria, Forest Hills has become an example of Christian hospitality in a time of anti-Muslim prejudice and opposition to Syrian immigrants in the U.S.
“I hope we as Anabaptist peace churches can articulate that there is no military solution to Islamic extremism,” Carlson said. “The only thing that will make a difference is compassion and love. If we close ourselves off to those solutions, we’re making it worse for those in the future. A 4-year-old boy whose house is bombed and is then refused entry as a refugee will [in the future] be a prime recruit for extremism.”
Carlson described the Forest Hills Mennonite Church welcome team as “intergenerational, from 1 to 80 years old.”
Several team members secured donated house furnishings and helped prepare the house for the Khilo family’s arrival.
Carlson said the Khilos are Muslim and requested halal (permissible for Muslims) food, but they also asked to visit the church on a Sunday morning.
On Nov. 15, the Khilos met their supporting congregation.
“They came and were introduced and received a really warm welcome and had a pizza lunch afterward,” Carlson said. “It was a really rich time of interaction and connection.”
The Forest Hills welcome team has been highly involved in the Khilos’ resettlement process, visiting them each day, helping with English, transportation to appointments, playing soccer and trying to communicate using smartphone apps that translate between English and Arabic.
Christine Baer, a Church World Service congregational resource developer who worked with the Forest Hills team, said CWS handles the logistical aspects of refugee resettlement. Each family has a case manager and an employment specialist to help find housing and gain employment for adults and education for children.
Baer said a congregation or other organization can form a welcome team to donate supplies and offer friendship. The welcome team can choose what level of support they would like to offer the family.
“Maybe one welcome team will help set up the house for the family, and that’s it,” Baer said. “Another welcome team might set up the house and meet once a week for coffee or tea.”
After the welcome team decides to commit to the project, Baer matches the team with a refugee family in the process of government screening.
“Refugees are the most screened people who come to the United States,” Baer said. The Forest Hills team had previously been expecting another family from Syria who gave birth to a baby during the screening process. The baby had to be screened as well, and during that period the other family members’ documents expired, setting back their entire process.
No reason to fear
The idea that Forest Hills members might have misgivings about their undertaking in light of the Paris terrorist attacks is one Carlson can only laugh at.
“This family is resettling in the U.S. through a long-established program with a near-impeccable record of safety,” he said.
The team members’ only concerns were that the Khilos might be vulnerable to anti-Muslim sentiment from the wider community. Some of the team members are monitoring the children’s school settings to make sure they aren’t being targeted.
Carlson considers anti-refugee rhetoric “crazy” and “not at all rooted in fact.”
“The fear is based on images we’re seeing from Europe of border crossings overrun with people, and that’s not what this program is,” he said. “I understand — from a public policy perspective — that we need a government to keep us safe. If there were imminent danger, I’d understand Christians saying, ‘Let’s wait and think about this.’ But this is such a safe and rigorous process; there’s nothing to be afraid of.
“The family we’re connected with fled before the rise of ISIS. Their village was destroyed by their own government. When people say, ‘Why can’t they just go home?’ — well, there’s no home there; that government is still in power.”
He said he was thankful for the people on the welcome team and in his congregation for their willingness to work with refugees.
“This isn’t just an abstract political argument,” he said. “These are real people.”
Mennonite World Review invites readers’ comments on articles. To promote constructive dialogue, editors select the comments that appear, just as we do with letters to the editor in print. These decisions are final. Writers must sign their first and last names; anonymous comments are not accepted. Comments do not appear until approved and are posted during business hours. Comments may be reproduced in print, and may be edited if selected for print.