by Shelly Yanoff and Judi Bernstein-Baker

The world is facing its greatest refugee crisis since World War II, with more than 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, DR 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 that 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 St. Martin-in- the- Fields, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Germantown Jewish Center, Mishkan Shalom, the Unitarian Society, Sisters of St. Joseph’s, the Interfaith Hospitality coalition, local Realtors and 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 NW 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 Episcopal Church, working with Bethany Christian Services, sponsored a Syrian family. The family lived in transitional housing at the Lutheran Seminary.

Hal Taussig, team coordinator for Translation and Fundraising at St. Martin’s, explains that rather spontaneously and under the leadership of its Rector, the Rev. Jarrett Kerbel, St. Martin’s parish has organized a refugee resettlement ministry. A team of more than 20 supporters, including other churches and synagogues in the Northwest, supports 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 local developer Ken Weinstein, and 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 launched an 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 United States of foreign nationals from several Muslim majority countries.

It is shameful that President Trump signed an executive order banning refugees on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The same fear and prejudice that kept Jews out of the United States during the Holocaust is now being directed against Muslim and other victims of persecution and war. It was heartwarming to see Gov. Wolf, Mayor Kenney, Councilwoman Gym, Rep. Dwight Evans, Sen. Casey and Rep. Brady 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 Feb.10 from 9 to11a.m.at Mt. Airy USA’s main office, 6703 Germantown Ave, Suite 200. Those wishing to attend or learn more about the Northwest refugee support work should contact Sarajane Blair sblair@mtairyusa.org or Judi Bernstein-Baker at judibernsteinbaker@gmail.com.

Judith Bernstein-Baker is a Mt. Airy resident and former Executive Director of HIAS Pennsylvania. Shelly Yanoff, also a Mt. Airy resident, is the former executive director of the region’s child advocacy organization, Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY), where she worked for 23 years. She currently spends her time writing, lecturing and volunteering.

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