Lancaster becomes ‘refugee capital’

Community members gather to learn how to welcome newcomers

Mar 13, 2017 by and

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LANCASTER, Pa. — Lancaster City has become known as “America’s refugee capital” after the BBC reported it takes in 20 times more refugees per capita than the rest of the United States. Lancaster County has taken in 1,300 refugees since 2013, according to the BBC.

Despite uncertainty surrounding the future of refugee resettlement in the U.S., interest seemed higher than ever Feb. 13 as more than 200 people came to Alive Church in Ephrata for an information session organized by Eastern Mennonite Missions and Church World Service.

Christine Baer, congregational resource developer with Church World Service, speaks at “Welcoming refugees,” an information session co-hosted by Eastern Mennonite Missions at Alive Church in Ephrata, Pa., Feb. 13. — Tammy Evans/EMM

Christine Baer, congregational resource developer with Church World Service, speaks at “Welcoming refugees,” an information session co-hosted by Eastern Mennonite Missions at Alive Church in Ephrata, Pa., Feb. 13. — Tammy Evans/EMM

Christine Baer, congregational resource developer at CWS, spoke about refugee facts and statistics, stories of resettlement in Lancaster County and ways for anyone to get involved.

Many of the facts Baer shared were sobering. There are 21.3 million refugees worldwide and 65.3 million displaced people in total. The average time spent in a refugee camp is 17 years. Half of all refugees are under 18. Resettlement in another country is an option for less than 1 percent of refugees.

Despite the grim statistics, Baer remains optimistic that the Lancaster County community can make a difference by helping refugees build new lives here.

“The level of welcome and support has been amazing and encouraging to see,” said Baer of Lancaster’s response to refugees.

Three steps to help

What can Lancaster County residents do to help? Baer’s answer: donate, educate, participate.

To donate, find a list of needed household items and a portal to give money at To educate, find creative ways to engage with and inform the public about refugees. She also suggested finding ways to interact with and learn from individuals or families from other cultures.

To participate, consider working with CWS to form a Welcome Team for a newly arriving refugee individual or family. Churches often become involved with refugees in this way: In 2016, 33 local congregations formed Welcome Teams.

People can also volunteer as individuals to help with needs like transportation, health advocacy and community orientation.

Refugees need an outlet for their hospitality that community members can help to provide. Members of CWS staff are invited to dinner by refugees almost every day, she said.

This was the third event in which Baer partnered with EMM to inform the public about ways to help refugees.

EMM discipleship trainer An­gie Earl said EMM and CWS are planning to increase their partnership efforts throughout 2017, holding more joint events and possibly finding ways to facilitate more interaction between refugees and community members.

“We are a program attempting to provide hope and new stability,” said Baer of CWS. She spoke with excitement about a local congregational Welcome Team preparing to welcome a Syrian refugee family the next day. The family was able to arrive after a federal appeals court in California blocked President Trump’s travel ban.

“You can surprise yourself with the ability to cross divides and seek common humanity,” Baer said.

Favored destination

The Washington Post on Feb. 14 featured East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church’s sponsorship of a Syrian refugee family, Maher and Randa Almahasneh and their four children. The article described Lancaster County as a politically conservative area that is “a favored destination for resettling refugees because churches here easily assemble welcome teams whose members see it as a godly duty to care for those in need.” It quotes church members regarding their reasons for helping refugees and their frustration with President Trump’s executive order on immigration. Harley Kooker says, “I was always taught that we love regardless of ethnicity, race, religion — you know, that’s how my Jesus is, that’s what my Jesus taught.”

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  • Harold Miller

    Reading about Lancaster being known as “America’s refugee capital” reminded me of this quote last month from our local news here in Harrisonburg, VA: “Among the top ten places nationwide with the highest share of refugees, according to this study by the Brookings Institution, was the Harrisonburg Metropolitan Area.”

    I’m sure there are many factors for both cities. But surely a significant one in common is the presence of a lot of Mennos, if I may do a bit of (humble!) bragging.

  • Rainer Moeller

    My question is: Do Mennonites really want to be praised by the “Washington Post”? The “Posts’s interests are clear: supporting the Democrats by remaking the demography. Lancaster County is, as the “Post” says, “conservative”, so refugees are welcome as a counterweight against the deplored and dangerous white working class.
    This and the Harrisonburg example pose an interesting question: How are the relations between Mennonites and the white working class? (Are there any relations at all?) We never read anything about Mennonite workers losing their job: Are there no Mennonite workers or don’t they ever lose their job?
    From my lecture of mennoworld I would conclude that Mennos are a church of saturated upper middle class people, mostly in teaching or managerial professions.

    • Linda Rosenblum

      I think your impression of Mennonites from MWR is indicative of the MWR’s readership and not Mennonites as a whole. Linda Rosenblum

    • Bruce Leichty

      We should be both welcoming refugees AND standing up for the working class, white or nonwhite. You’ve put your finger on a big problem in our church. Racism is taboo and antiracism the popular battle cry, but classism and economic elitism persists; overseas missions flourish while poor folks suffer and turn to drugs on the wrong side of the tracks in the Rust Belt and Midwest.

  • Lily Frost

    Where are the places the refugees are? i wish to maybe go to the places and hand out the needed items.

    • Chris Landes

      @Lily Frost:disqus
      – Come visit Habecker Mennonite Church in Lancaster, PA where about 80%
      of our members are former Karen refugees from Burma/Myanmar.

      I think you will find, however, that long-term U.S. citizens like myself gain much more through our relationship with the Karen than we could ever give. :)

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