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America's Amish refugee town faces fresh challenges

October 9, 2017

As the US isolates itself under President Donald Trump, one rural town in Pennsylvania keeps rooting for refugees. The Amish and Mennonite communities of Lancaster County say "refugees welcome." Sertan Sanderson reports.

An Amish man drives a horse-drawn carraige in Pennsylvania
Image: DW/S. Sanderson

Quilts, pies and buggies. The Amish remain the main attraction in rural Pennsylvania, some 80 miles (130 kilometers) east of Philadelphia. But the Amish and their neighbors have quietly made Lancaster County, with about half a million residents, into a home for refugees, dubbed by some "America's refugee capital."

Since 2013, the rural community has taken in more than 1,300 refugees. Put into perspective, that's almost the same number of refugee arrivals as in Orange County, California, (population 3.2 million) which bridges Los Angeles and San Diego.

Read more: Immigrants strive for US passports out of fear of future

Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray explains that welcoming refugees by supporting religious freedom and tolerance "is in [Lancaster's] genes."

"Pennsylvania was established on the principle of religious freedom. Add to that the religious dimension of Lancaster with the Amish tradition, and you get one of the most tolerant places in the country. Yes, we are welcoming people that look different. But they don't look any more different from the norm than an Amishman does."

Refugees welcome

Stephanie Gromek, who works for Church World Service, one of nine refugee resettlement agencies in the US, says that in the past year alone, the organization has resettled almost 700 refugees here. The Amish "worked so hard to keep their culture, and that's what we hope for with our refugees," she says.

Stephanie Gromek
Stephanie Gromek is confident that Lancaster's welcoming culture will weather the changes in US policiesImage: DW/S.Sanderson

The community was founded for the Amish and Mennonites in the 1800s as a place where they could practice their religion. "They were fleeing persecution at the time, and now these refugees from around the world are fleeing persecution as well, and that's the correlation that allows Lancastrians to be so welcoming to strangers," Gromek says.

Read more: Immigrants illegally in US grasp sanctuary city limits

Gromek deals with cases from around the world in her work and says that in recent times there has been an influx of people from Syria, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Captain Emmanuel came to Pennsylvania from the DRC after spending 18 years in refugee camps. He says he feels blessed to be here.

"It was a long process for me to get here, but I'm happy to be here. I feel part of the community wherever I go. I've made friends from Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, Cuba here. We are all brothers."

Learning from Amish ancestors

Captain Emmanuel was sponsored through Grace and Truth Church in Lancaster, a nondenominational community that arose from the Amish tradition.

Pastor David Beiler, who leads the congregation, says that various denominations in town gather around the refugee cause, working closely with agencies like CWS.

"The whole city is coming together behind the refugees in welcoming them, regardless of faith. But the Amish are a big part of it."

Pastor David Beiler and Captain Emmanuel
Pastor David Beiler has helped Captain Emmanuel and other refugees to become part of the communityImage: DW/S.Sanderson

Beiler helped Emmanuel get his driver's license, practicing driving with him on the roads of Lancaster. Beiler also played a role in  Emmanuel finding his home in Lancaster, an apartment the refugee and his family rent from an Amish man.

Although they tend to keep to the background of local affairs, the Amish own numerous properties in the center of Lancaster. Over many decades, the religious group gradually moved to the outskirts of town, as the community became increasingly gentrified, but the Amish continue to define much of the spirit and identity of Lancaster.

"Most members of the Amish community lead very rural lives here, ploughing the field with the horse and all that. But we also have Amish who are involved in the city of Lancaster, who come into the city as landlords of refugees — sometimes on their buggies — since they own a lot of the houses here," Gromek explains.

"They're not political people but they make it known that they are supportive of the work that we do."

A 'thriving city' for all

The refugees have been a boon to Lancaster, too. Rhoda Charles of the Habecker Mennonite Church says they have singlehandedly reinvigorated the community.

Rhoda's husband Jonathon, a local photographer, agrees: "We try to use every opportunity we can to show to the world that the immigrant refugee people have given us far more than they have taken. They are the lifeblood of the community."

An Amish family rides in a horse-drawn carriage
The Amish are a fixture on Lancaster County's streetsImage: DW/S. Sanderson

While the Mennonite Church originates in the Amish faith, it has far fewer stringent rules applied to everyday life and is more open to integrating those who aren't born into the faith. Over the past nine years, Habecker Mennonite Church has sponsored several Karen refugees from Myanmar who had been living in camps in Thailand. One of them is Sah Klu, who is emphatic about not missing her homeland anymore.

"I feel like this is my home now. Our church friends are now like our family too. I never saw anyone nice like this when we were living in the camps."

Winds of change

But changes in US policy doesn't bode well for the countryside community. President Trump's push to put limits on the number of refugees admitted into the US will likely leave its mark on Lancaster, says Jonathan Charles.

"This current president is not a person we are very fond of. We haven't had any new arrivals since [Trump] became president. And it will take a few years to see how much it impacts us. But I'm sure that it will."

Fewer than half as many refugee resettlements are expected this year as compared to last year, says Stephanie Gromek. Still, she remains optimistic: "If we don't get any refugee arrivals, our organization doesn't get funding. However, the reasons for what the administration is trying to do are not holding. There's no weight, no justification for what Trump is trying to do."

Mayor Gray, however, is worried there might be more at stake and is paying attention to what the migrant community has to say about the political developments in the US. "Some refugees I spoke to are now afraid of what's going on a national level. They say they've seen this kind of thing happening before in their own countries.

"I really hope they're wrong."

Sertan Sanderson Moderation
Sertan Sanderson DW journalist & human seeking to make sense of the world and understand what motivates other humansSertanSanderson