Why does the US not welcome refugees?

Welcome to the Amish

Quilts, cakes and carriages - that's what the Amish are known for, who are still one of the main attractions in rural Pennsylvania, 130 kilometers west of Philadelphia. But for some time now, the denomination and its neighborhood have been transforming Lancaster County, with around half a million inhabitants, into a home for refugees - which has already earned the district the nickname "America's Refugee Capital".

Since 2013, the rural community has taken in more than 1,300 refugees. In comparison: California's Orange County between Los Angeles and San Diego took just as many refugees - with a population of 3.2 million.

For Rick Gray, Lancaster Mayor, the welcoming culture of religious freedom and tolerance is ingrained in the city's genes. "Religious freedom is the foundation on which Pennsylvania was built. Combined with the Amish tradition that shapes the religious dimension of the county, this makes for one of the most tolerant places in the country. True, we welcome people who look different. From the norm however, they deviate no more and no less than an Amish. "

Refugees welcome

Stephanie Gromek works for the Church World Service (CWS), one of nine agencies in the US that are responsible for resettlement. They said they relocated nearly 700 refugees to Lancaster in the past year alone. The Amish "have worked hard to preserve their culture and that is what we hope for for the refugees," she says.

Stephanie Gromek is confident that Lancaster's welcoming culture will outlast Trump's foreclosure policy

The community was founded in the 18th century as a place where Amish and Mennonites could practice their religion. "They fled persecution back then, like all these refugees - that is the connection that makes the Lancaster people welcome," explains Gromek.

Her work confronts her with cases from all over the world - recently people have come from Syria, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in particular. So did Captain Emmanuel, who ended up in a refugee camp in Pennsylvania after 18 years. He feels it is a blessing to be there. "It's been a long way here, but I'm happy in this place. I feel part of the community wherever I go. I've made friends from Syria, Pakistan, Somalia and Cuba - we're all brothers."

Learn from the ancestors

Captain Emmanuel was supported by the "Grace and Truth Church", a non-denominational church that has its roots in Amish tradition. David Beiler, senior pastor of the parish, reports that various religious communities in the city are addressing the refugee issue and working closely with authorities such as the CWS.

"The whole city stands behind the refugees by welcoming them regardless of their beliefs. But the Amish are a particularly large part." Beiler also helped Emmanuel get his driver's license, practicing with him on the streets of Lancaster. He also helped Emmanuel find a home: an apartment that the refugee rented from an Amish for himself and his family.

Pastor David Beiler has supported Captain Emmanuel and other refugees on many issues

Although they stay out of public affairs for the most part, the Amish own a large number of properties in central Lancaster. Over the decades, due to increasing gentrification, the religious community gradually withdrew to the outskirts - but they still shape the identity of the city.

"Most of the members of the community lead a very rural life. They plow their fields on horseback and the like. But at the same time there are many Amish who are very present in the city. They come - sometimes on their carriages - to the center renting out their houses in the area to refugees, "says Gromek. "They are not political people, but they convey that they support our work."

A city for everyone

But the refugees themselves are a blessing for many: Rhoda Charles from the Habecker Mennonite Church is convinced that they would have revived the community on their own. Her husband, Jonathan, a local photographer, agrees: "We try to show the world at every opportunity that the refugees have given us more than they have taken away. They are the lifeblood of the community."

The evangelical free church of the Mennonites has its origin in the Amish faith, but includes far less strict rules in everyday life and is more open to those who were not born into the faith. Over the past nine years, the Habecker Mennonite Church has also supported several Karen refugees, members of an ethnic minority of Myanmar who were previously housed in refugee camps in Thailand. Sah Klu is one of them - she emphasizes how little she misses her home. "This is my home now. Our friends from the Church have become our family. In the refugee camps, I have never seen anyone be so kind to us."

Sah Klu and her children quickly felt at home in Lancaster

Political change

But US political change bodes ill for the community. President Donald Trump's efforts to limit the influx of refugees into the United States will also leave its mark in Lancaster, says Jonathan Charles. "We are not exactly enthusiastic about the current president. Since he took office, there have been no more refugees. It will probably take a few years before the consequences for our community can be assessed. But that there will be consequences - I'm sure of that."

Stephanie Gromek doesn't even expect half as many relocations as last year. Nevertheless, she remains optimistic: "If no more refugees come, our organization will lose the financial support. But the justification for what the government is trying to achieve is not sound. There is simply no justification for what Trump is up to."

Mayor Gray is concerned that more could be at stake. He follows closely what the migrants themselves say about political developments in the US. "Some of the refugees I spoke to are afraid of what is happening on a national level. They say that they have experienced something similar in their countries of origin."

"I really hope you are wrong."