LANCASTER, Pa. — Middle school students from refugee families resettled in Lancaster, Pa., expanded their language skills and cultural understanding during Leap into Language, a June-July program staffed through a first-ever partnership between Eastern Mennonite Missions’ Kingdom Teams (K-Teams), The Refugee Center at Reynolds, and the School District of Lancaster.
“I was surprised we were still in Lancaster!” said 18-year-old Neal Flanagan of Marietta, Pa., after his K-Team’s first afternoon with students during the four-week program, open to students who have been in the U.S. three years or less. The students belong to families that fled countries such as Afghanistan, Burma (now Myanmar), Congo, Nepal, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria. Flanagan and other K-Team participants belong to youth groups from Marion Mennonite Church in Chambersburg, Pa., Mount Joy (Pa.) Mennonite Church, and Petra Church in New Holland, Pa.
Flanagan’s friend Roman Wagner of Manheim, Pa., added, “You can make a difference 15 minutes down the road. You don’t have to go far away.” Making a difference for students from refugee families that have experienced displacement and other trauma turns out to be as simple as playing soccer or making no-bake cookies with them, teaching them card tricks, and introducing them to water balloons on a 90-degree day. Having fun together provides opportunities to use English and helps to alleviate the impact of previous trauma.
“My mom thought the [Fourth of July] fireworks were guns. She hid in the basement and we had to try hard to get her out,” said Ben, a student from Rwanda who has chosen an American name. Such comments from students, along with scenarios provided by EMM’s K-Team staff, helped teens born in the U.S. begin to grasp the challenges that refugee families face.
“The K-Team youth have come into their week on mission quite unsure about serving people of another religion or background,” said Emily Good, EMM summer intern who helped to lead K-Teams. “But they have left understanding that refugees are people, just like them, who have gone through some pretty rough stuff.”
K-Team participants have also begun to grasp how much people have in common across cultures. “They were amazed at how much common ground exists in the love of play and laughter and having fun,” said Angie Earl, EMM discipleship trainer who led the K-Team staff. “I enjoyed seeing the youth group kids grow more comfortable with crossing cultural boundaries and realize that God was using them to bring down the walls that too often divide us. By the end of the week, refugee students and K-Team youth were greeting each other with hugs and high fives.”
Colin Wenger, another EMM summer intern working with K-Teams, saw growth in K-Team participants’ ability to adjust to what students needed. “One day Ibrahim was struggling with the card game everyone was playing, so some of the guys helped him build a card house instead.”
Good noted the value of K-Team participants functioning as learners as well as teachers. “Three kids from Syria taught some Arabic to the K-Team from Marion Mennonite. The Syrian-American kids felt honored that the Marion kids cared enough to understand some of their first language. There was much laughter as the ESL (English as a Second Language) kids corrected the ‘English as a first language’ kids on their writing of Arabic symbols.”
In addition to partnering with Lancaster educators, the K-Team from Mount Joy Mennonite Church spent a morning working with Church World Service (CWS) Lancaster to set up a house for a Syrian family of six that arrived in the U.S. on July 13. When the K-Team visited the Islamic Community Center of Lancaster that afternoon, they learned that members of the Center are serving as the official welcome Team for this Syrian family. But the Center members were busy celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan, during the week when the house needed to be set up. So CWS invited the K-Team to help. The youth saw God at work in this unplanned Christian-Muslim partnership in serving a Lancaster refugee family.
Lancaster receives more refugees than any other city in Pennsylvania, and CWS expects the number arriving to increase in the coming months. An unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from their homes in recent years. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18 (unhcr.org).
When asked about next steps at their end of their K-Team experience, youth from Mount Joy Mennonite Church said they hope to spread the word that not all Muslims are like the terrorists portrayed in the media. And they plan to speak up when they hear others equate welcoming refugees with welcoming terrorists, informing others of the rigorous screening process refugees go through before arrival in the U.S.
Courtney Stains from Marion Mennonite Church summed up her K-Team experience: “I gained more cultural awareness and appreciation, discovered more about who I am in Christ, and deepened relationships with people and God. [I learned that] God wants to use me to help others. I don’t need to be perfect for Him to call me. I just need to open my heart.”