Pennsylvania County Welcomes Refugees With Open Arms

Originally published on November 27, 2019 7:45 am
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The number of refugees resettled in the United States has dropped a lot in recent years. For those families who do manage to get asylum, finding a community can be hard. But in Lancaster City, Pa., they've been welcomed with open arms. Cardiff Garcia and Stacey Vanek Smith of NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money found that refugees have in turn made big contributions.

CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: Mustafa Nuur was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1992. His father owned and ran a few small businesses.

MUSTAFA NUUR: We had an ice-cream shop, and then we had a clothing store. But the ice cream would've been the...

GARCIA: The big moneymaker back then.

NUUR: Because Somalia is a very hot country.

GARCIA: But tragedy struck Mustafa's family when he was just 11. His father was murdered by the terrorist group al-Shabab for refusing to give them money. The rest of the family had to flee to Kenya.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: About two years into their stay at a Kenyan refugee camp, Mustafa Nuur and his family found that they had been selected to be resettled in the U.S. And initially, they had mixed feelings.

NUUR: In the refugee camp, that always comes as a great news - at the same time, a bad news because the United States takes the longest to process anybody. They have a harder process. They have a harder scrutiny, harder background checks.

GARCIA: And he's right - the vetting process for refugees coming to the U.S. is intense. It can take years. For Mustafa's family, it took a decade.

VANEK SMITH: But eventually, the family was paired with a resettlement agency - Church World Service, which has a branch in Lancaster. It's a nonprofit that receives funding from the federal government and from private donors, and it sets up refugee families with a few months of housing, some counseling services, food and clothing. Mustafa says he found Lancaster City and Lancaster County unexpectedly welcoming, and that, in fact, is the city's reputation. In 2016, the number of refugees that were resettled in Lancaster City hit a peak of 407. As a share of the city's population, that's almost 23 times more refugees resettled than in the U.S. as a whole.

GARCIA: So why has Lancaster been able to resettle so many refugees? Well, one reason is resources. Local organizations will partner with Church World Service to provide health care, education, English tutoring and job training to refugees long after they've arrived. And second, Lancaster's history - the ancestors of Lancaster's big Amish and Mennonite populations themselves came to Lancaster back in the 18th century while fleeing persecution, and the value of welcoming people in need of a new home has remained in place. In fact, Mustafa's own experience in Lancaster reflects this.

NUUR: My first ever job was - I worked with the Amish. I used to work for a company that built garages and sheds, so I used to install windows.

GARCIA: He then worked for a marketing company, where he trained to be a web developer. And now Mustafa runs his own business. It's called Bridge, a website where people can sign up to have dinner with a refugee family in the area. The family charges a fee for the dinners, which it keeps, and Bridge gets a service fee.

NUUR: My pitch was that instead of retraining or giving refugees a new skill, why not give them a platform where they can earn an income with what they already know and what they already have, which is their culture and their food?

VANEK SMITH: Mustafa says his company is making money, and he even has plans to expand into neighboring York County. And he adds that his story shows the symbiotic relationship between the Lancaster economy and its refugees.

Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: Cardiff Garcia, NPR News.

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