The world is facing its greatest refugee crisis since World War II, with over 65 million people displaced by war and persecution. According to the International Rescue Committee, one out of every 122 people in the world has been displaced from his or her home. Refugees who are resettled in the United States come from Syria, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma/Myanmar, Nepalese forced out of Bhutan, Eastern Europeans, Central Americans, Afghans, Eritreans, and other nationalities. Many have witnessed war and the death of a loved one and arrive under the sponsorship of a nonprofit resettlement agency which finds and furnishes housing, often in support with partners, and provides intensive case management and cultural orientation to new arrivals.
Can a community that prides itself on friendliness and diversity roll out the welcome mat to new refugees in Philadelphia? A group of more than 20 concerned Mt. Airy, Chestnut Hill and Germantown residents, including representatives from the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Germantown Jewish Center, Mishkan Shalom, Unitarian Society of Germantown, Sisters of Saint Joseph, Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network, local realtors, and supported by Mt. Airy USA, are working towards that goal. They have been joined by Philadelphia’s three resettlement agencies: Bethany Christian Services, HIAS Pennsylvania and Nationalities Service Center to develop a support system for refugees in Northwest Philadelphia.
Even prior to the meetings, congregational involvement in refugee resettlement was unfolding. In December, congregants from St. Martin-in-the-Fields and St. Paul’s, working with Bethany Christian Services, sponsored a Syrian family. The family lived in transitional housing at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. Hal Taussig, team coordinator for Translation and Fundraising from St. Martin’s explains that, “rather spontaneously and under the leadership of our rector, Rev. Jarrett Kerbel, the St. Martin’s parish has organized a refugee resettlement ministry. Our team of more than 20 supporters, including other churches and synagogues in the Northwest, support two Syrian students, one in high school and one in college, and are the main support structure for a four-person Syrian refugee family. St. Martin’s has thrown itself into this work as a part of its larger work for compassion, social responsibility, and justice. “
Two weeks ago, the Room at the Inn ministry of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church welcomed a Congolese family of five, also working with Bethany Christian Services. The St. Paul’s volunteers found a beautiful apartment in Mt. Airy, thanks to a working partnership with a local developer Ken Weinstein,the group furnished it with donated and purchased furnishings. Now specialized teams of volunteers will be working with the children to obtain medical clearances, enroll the four children in school, ensure that their English language skills continue to develop, help the mother find work, and make them feel welcome in the area.
Volunteers from the Germantown Jewish Center and Mishkan Shalom work individually with refugee families living in other parts of the city, providing mentoring and assistance in navigating various agencies and learning English.
Mt. Airy USA sees refugees as a way to bring young families to Northwest Philadelphia; refugees are vehicles for economic growth as they spend money locally and open new business. Despite language barriers, the majority of adult refugees are employed within six months after arrival. Since Mt. Airy USA has already launched the Immigrant Innovation Hub to support new businesses, developing the area as a site for refugee resettlement also fits with this new initiative.
But now the work of welcoming refugees has taken another turn as President Trump issued an order suspending refugee resettlement for four months and barring the entrance to the U.S. of foreign nationals from several Muslim-majority countries.
Judith Bernstein-Baker, a Mt. Airy resident and former executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania, believes that shutting the door on refugees is fear-mongering at its worst. “It is shameful that President Trump signed an Executive Order banning refugees on International Holocaust Remembrance Day,” she said. “The same fear and prejudice that kept Jews out of the U.S. during the Holocaust is now being directed against Muslims and other victims of persecution and war. It was heartwarming to see Mayor Jim Kenney, Councilwoman Helen Gym, Congressmen Dwight Evans and Bob Brady, and Senator Bob Casey join with thousands of others to repudiate the ban this past weekend.”
A meeting to plan a large educational forum on refugees will be take place February 10th from 9-11am at Mt. Airy USA’s main office, 6703 Germantown Ave, suite 200. Those wishing to attend or learn more about the Northwest Refugee Resettlement support work should contact Sarajane Blair firstname.lastname@example.org or Judi Bernstein-Baker at email@example.com.