Pennsylvania church welcomes Syrian refugee family

Nov 30, 2015 by and

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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.

Khalideh Abdulrahma and her daughters, Fekrat Khilo, above, and Hevin Khilo, greet members of the Forest Hills Mennonite Church welcome team. — Jon Carlson

Khalideh Abdulrahma and her daughters, Fekrat Khilo, above, and Hevin Khilo, greet members of the Forest Hills Mennonite Church welcome team. — Jon Carlson

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.

Handling logistics

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.

Back row, from left: Ahmad Khilo, Hevin Khilo, Salah Khilo, Ameneh Khilo, Fekrat Khilo, Mohammad Khilo and Khalideh Abdulrahma. Front: Iraqi translator Praa and Christine Baer of Church World Service. — Lyn Carlson

Back row, from left: Ahmad Khilo, Hevin Khilo, Salah Khilo, Ameneh Khilo, Fekrat Khilo, Mohammad Khilo and Khalideh Abdulrahma. Front: Iraqi translator Praa and Christine Baer of Church World Service. — Lyn Carlson

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.”


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  • David Jost

    Awesome. — David Jost

  • Clair Hochstetler

    This is not only awesome, its a great model for the rest of us. There ought to be dozens of Mennonite Churches across this land who could respond compassionately and resourcefully in like manner. It’s simply a matter of getting the discussion going locally. When I first read this it took me back to a discussion and decision our congregation in Harrisonburg VA undertook back in the 80’s to be part of a network in the Sanctuary Movement, temporarily harbouring and supporting traumatised Central American refugees. After thinking about how the congregation I’m part of could help address needs in this current world refugee crisis I sent a letter to our Peace and Justice committee for preliminary discussion and with a link to this excellent article.

    This infographic summarizes the current government screening process based on the experience and knowledge of long-time immigration lawyer, refugee advocate, and part-time pastor of Red Lion United Methodist Church in Lebanon OH. His name is Scott Hicks. This piece could become very useful as a reference during congregational discussion: http://radiatepresents.com/blog/2015/11/21/hlzvnr7g84y9bat0mxb3fm4g5o40kg

    For those worrried about the threat or risk of terrorists disguising themselves as Syrian refugees there is this gem, particularly noteworthy because of the source: the Cato Institute – which is the think tank of the Libertarian Koch brothers who have been systematically trying to take over the Republican Party. (Now when the Cato Institute says Syrian refugees are not the problem, you know that terrified Americans and all those republican Governors have certainly lost all perspective!) http://www.cato.org/blog/syrian-refugees-dont-pose-serious-security-threat And…we also have the collective sentiments of a thousand Jewish rabbis here in America: http://aplus.com/a/1000-rabbis-letter-welcome-syrian-refugees

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