February 21, 2017

Former Somalia worker finds her place among Somali refugees in Lancaster City

Written by  Emily Jones
Barbara Witmer sits with a mug of Somali tea in her Lancaster City home. Barbara Witmer sits with a mug of Somali tea in her Lancaster City home. Photo by Emily Jones.

LANCASTER, Pa. — Lancaster City has recently become known as “America’s refugee capital,” following a report by the BBC which said that Lancaster takes in 20 times more refugees per capita than the rest of the U.S. Meet Barbara Witmer, one Lancaster City resident whose longstanding commitment to refugee resettlement has affected hundreds of lives.

Witmer’s involvement with refugees becomes evident within minutes of meeting her. Before our interview, she had spent her morning giving rides to two Somali women without driver’s licenses. A hand-drawn sign reading “Welcome refugees” was propped in the corner of her living room, left over from Lancaster City’s January 31 vigil in support of refugee resettlement.

After learning about Witmer’s 10-plus years as an employee of refugee resettlement agency Church World Service (CWS), as well as her many years offering refugees lodging in her own home along with other practical help, one would be surprised to learn that working with refugees in Lancaster City was never her plan.

Although working with the international community of Lancaster brings Witmer joy, a part of her still longs to return to the place where, as a young woman, she first felt her calling to serve: Somalia.

Witmer and her husband Lamar moved to the ancient Somali port city of Merca as workers with Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) in 1986. At only 24, Witmer already felt a strong calling to serve among the Somali people. While her husband worked in curriculum development, Witmer was assigned to the Merca Women’s Education Center as an agriculturalist.

The only crop that would take root in the sandy soil was a watermelon vine, and one day when the garden gate was left open, wandering goats ate the vine before fruit had even appeared. Other difficulties included overcoming the language barrier and becoming a new mother to two out of her three children in the unfamiliar culture.

But amidst the hardships, Witmer was often amazed, almost flustered, by the generous outpouring of hospitality so ingrained in Somali culture. She remembers that once, when she and Lamar were stranded in an unfamiliar village during a long bus ride, they were taken into the homes of kind strangers until they could resume their journey.

After a term in Somalia, and two years in Ohio where Lamar completed a Master's degree, the Witmers were assigned to work in the Somali-majority North Eastern Province of Kenya. But after a year, complications of a medical issue forced an early return, and they settled in Lamar’s home area of Lancaster County in 1992.

The Witmers held onto the hope of returning to work among Somalis, but with the ongoing civil war in Somalia and other issues, it was clear an overseas assignment was not in the near future. Still wanting to serve however possible, they bought a house in Lancaster City and designated the first floor to be a separate living space to offer to anyone in need.  

Looking for ways to fulfill her calling to work among Somalis, Witmer began volunteering with CWS, focusing especially on helping Somali refugees. In 2003, Witmer became an employee of CWS, first working with grants and later becoming a resettlement caseworker.

The work allowed her to continue making life-changing connections with Somali people. She is especially inspired by Somali refugee Samuel Muya, who was resettled by CWS in 2012 and now volunteers to help other Somali refugees, while also balancing a full-time job and a family.

Witmer has helped many other refugees build new lives in America after escaping tragic and dangerous situations in their native countries. She shared the story of one woman whose family was targeted in an attack in Somalia. Her husband was killed, her youngest child was injured, and six of her eight children fled. She still does not know where they are.

Witmer helps people like this woman explore options and regain independence. For example, the woman’s youngest son now suffers from brain damage and seizures due to injuries sustained during the attack. The mother thought her child could never go to school, but Witmer encouraged her to enroll him, giving the child opportunities for socialization and education and the mother much-needed hours free from caregiving.

Witmer ended her employment with CWS in 2014, but she is as involved with the Somali community as ever. She says much of her volunteer work with Somali refugees includes transporting people to various appointments, translating mail and other important information, and encouraging refugees to take new steps of independence.

Her house remains available to any refugee who needs a place to stay. The shortest stay has been a few days; the longest, two years.

Witmer’s devotion inspires others who are involved in refugee resettlement in Lancaster. “Barbara is what it means to be welcoming,” said Christine Baer, Congregational Resource Developer with CWS. “She’s my hero!”

Over the last five years, the Somali community in Lancaster has grown. “Five years ago, if you’d told me I’d be speaking Somali almost every day, I would have said, ‘Really?’” said Witmer. Even so, she admits to feeling only “partially” fulfilled in Lancaster City. She still dreams of returning to Somalia when the time is right.

But as long as Witmer is still in Lancaster and there are Somali refugees to serve, her home and heart will always be open to them.