St. Martin’s welcomed the Dehan family, refugees from Syria, in December (from left) Majidah, her son Ayman, husband Sameer and daughter Iman.

by Brendan Sample

With the ongoing refugee crisis continuing to serve as a controversial issue, both at home and abroad, several residents of Chestnut Hill not only support bringing families into the country, but also have brought in several refugees already.

One of the organizations helping to lead such efforts in the area is St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church, a local Episcopalian parish that even lists “becoming a racism-free and diverse community that reflects the city where we worship” as one of its core values. The church has a history of welcoming refugees, as it did with those from Vietnam in the 1970s, and this latest initiative has been spearheaded by the parish rector, the Rev. Jarrett Kerbel.

“The effort really started up in response to the great refugee exodus of late winter/early spring of last year, and I think some of the galvanizing images of that flood of refugees moved our membership with compassion,” Kerbel said. “We had at least 20 people come to the initial meeting, which showed that there was a large interest in helping from the beginning.”

Although the process of bringing refugees into the United States is often a long and complicated one, there are already a number of them currently living in Chestnut Hill. One of them, a junior college student at La Salle University named Mohamed, is currently living with Kerbel, while an entire family from the Democratic Republic of the Congo is currently living in Mr. Airy, thanks to the efforts of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

Last year, a number of parishioners at the church formed a group called Room at the Inn, which was meant to help refugee families settle in Philadelphia with the ultimate goal of bringing a newly-immigrated family to the city. Recently, they were able to find a family of five after working with Bethany Christian Services, an agency that has authorization from the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees. Having already found an apartment for them to live in, the group is now dedicated to providing the family with other necessities for their new lives, such as work for the mother, schools for the children, transportation and clothing.”

“Our family just arrived a week ago, and at this point they are very excited and relieved to be in the United States,” said Steve Heimann, a member of the Room at the Inn. “The children especially have been enjoying seeing some of the sights in Philly, playing ball at their neighborhood rec center, watching a youth league basketball game at the Water Tower and so on.”

While significant progress has already been made by Chestnut Hill residents, many realize that there is still plenty of work left to be done. Some do have an idea of what they’d like to accomplish in the near future, with emphasis being put on the number of families being brought in and creating specific structures to make their transition to Philadelphia smoother.

“We want to start very modestly with between three and five families in this first year, though I’m not entirely sure if that’s possible now,” said Judith Bernstein-Baker, former executive director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. “If we’re going to bring refugees to Philadelphia, we’ll need to find affordable housing, employment and coordinate other resources for them. We’ll also have to do some advocacy on a federal level, but this neighborhood is also rich in professionals, so I think we should get a lot of volunteers to help out as well.”

Although helping more refugees will likely prove to be a long and uphill battle, it is nevertheless one that these residents are determined to fight. In addition to their plans for the future of these refugees, many hope that their efforts will allow others to see this matter in a different light.

“We hope people recognize that there are millions of refugees worldwide seeking refuge from intolerable situations – war, political or religious persecution – and that they are people just like us who need and are deserving of the help we can give them,” Heimann said.

“I ultimately want people to take away from all of this that they shouldn’t feel there isn’t enough generosity to welcome the next person,” Kerbel said. “I feel very reassured about the fabric of this neighborhood, and it’s just really inspiring to see people so active, kind and focused on others.”

Brendan Sample can be reached at brendan@chestnuthilllocal.com

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