September 24, 2015

Local residents learn how to help refugees

Written by  Linda Moffett
More than 80 participants gathered in Lancaster, Pa., on September 11, 2015, at a meeting sponsored by Eastern Mennonite Missions and Church World Services to discuss ways to respond locally to the worldwide refugee crisis. More than 80 participants gathered in Lancaster, Pa., on September 11, 2015, at a meeting sponsored by Eastern Mennonite Missions and Church World Services to discuss ways to respond locally to the worldwide refugee crisis. Photo by Tammy Evans.

SALUNGA, Pa. -- The refugee crisis seems overwhelming -- not only to individuals, but also to entire countries. But on Friday, September 11, in Salunga, Pa., a group of more than eighty people met to talk about how they can get involved locally.

In a gathering sponsored jointly by Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) and Church World Services (CWS) in Lancaster, people heard stories from those already involved with helping immigrants, learned about the vast scope of the problem, and discovered ways they can make a difference.

“Right in front of us, in Lancaster County, there are refugees that we can serve and love,” said Angie Breneman, EMM discipleship trainer, who opened the meeting. “We can respond to the crisis in our world in the ways that Jesus calls us to. We can be involved in practical service.”

The refugee situation seems formidable, with over 16 million refugees and people in refugee-like situations, according to Christine Baer, congregational resource developer at CWS. She said, “There are 805,000 people in urgent need of resettlement. There are 28 resettlement countries providing places for fewer than 100,000 people each year. The average length of time spent in a refugee camp is 17 years.

“Fewer than one percent of refugees get resettled,” Baer said. “Refugees who arrive in Lancaster know they are really lucky.”

According to Baer, CWS resettles about 300 new refugees and 100 new Cuban entrants each year in Lancaster County; Lutheran Refugees Services of Lancaster resettles about 200.

“We have a ceiling in Lancaster about the number of refugees that can come,” Baer said. “People think we’re getting a flood, but the number is set and steady for the year.”

Baer said in 2014, the following nationalities and numbers arrived in Lancaster Country as refugees: 90 Somalis; 67 Burmese; 36 Iraqis; 32 Bhutanese; 31 Cubans; 25 Democratic Republic Congolese; 11 Ethiopians; 8 Sudanese; 2 Nepalis; 2 South Sudanese, and 1 Kenyan.

Currently Lancaster is expecting refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Syria.

“The prolonged conflict in the Congo has resulted in many refugees, especially those of Rwandan background,” Baer said. “We just assisted two large Congolese families who arrived last month, and we expect three more large families from the Congo by the end of the year.

“Refugees who arrive in Lancaster are likely to be expedited cases of very vulnerable populations who have likely experienced atrocities,” Baer said. “Women and large families are given preference.”

The room fell silent when Baer began talking about the situation in Syria.

Baer said, “It is the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. We need to stand up and take action. Since 2011 nearly 200,000 people have been killed, and now half of country’s population is displaced, with four million fleeing to neighboring countries. These families never wanted to leave home.”

A Syrian family was settled in Lancaster in June, and a “welcoming team” helped them to settle. Some members of the team researched Syrian foods and had a gourmet meal ready for them.

A second family from Syria arrived September 13. “Now that new family is receiving a welcoming meal from the first family,” Baer said. “Four families have recently settled in Allentown, Pennsylvania. There are not many Syrians in the U.S.”

Bruce Heckman of Lancaster talked about his involvement serving refugees with his wife Joyce.

“It’s good when you can be part of a team. People can then help as much or as little as they are able. We help people to learn the [English] language, fill out Social Security forms, drive them to doctors’ appointments, even help them go through a stack of mail to see what’s junk and what’s important. It’s a wonderful experience. I absolutely love spending time with my refugee friends.”

EMM President Nelson Okanya was pleased with the interest shown by event participants. "I was happy to see EMM and CWS working together to give voice and practical help to the local refugee resettlement efforts," Okanya said. "We also have EMM personnel who are assisting with the influx of Syrian refugees in Halle, Germany. This world reality brings unique challenges and opportunities to our holistic and incarnational mission vision of reaching out cross-culturally, locally and globally."

The community can get involved in a number of ways. It boils down to “donate, educate, and participate,” Baer said. “Donations of household supplies, furniture, school uniforms, and more are very useful. Learn what you can about the refugee crisis and newcomers in your community by attending events such as this one. And finally there are many ways to volunteer. Family mentors, handymen, friendship partners, and more are needed."

“There is a lot of good in this world and a lot of people are responding with good,” Baer said.

For more information about assisting refugees in Lancaster County, contact Church World Service or Lancaster County Refugee Coalition.