Small sanctuaries

Where the refugees go

America’s refugee cities are now in Middle America.
Small sanctuaries

Where the refugees go

America’s refugee cities are now in Middle America.

On a Sunday night, two days after an executive order cut the total number of refugees the U.S. will admit in half, attendees of “A Concert for Refugees: All Who Enter Are Welcome” started filling up a three-story Irish mega-pub in downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Upstairs, designated ambassadors stood in booths representing their home countries of Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, and Somalia. Downstairs, Mustafa O. Nuur, a 23-year-old from Mogadishu, stood on a stage in a large hall lit by blue lights.

More than 1,000 people were there, including the mayor and the local TV news. It was the city’s second annual refugee concert, planned back in December. Nuur is a web designer in Lancaster now, but 11 years ago, his father was murdered in front of his family for speaking out against the local rebel group. He and his mother and seven younger siblings escaped to Kenya, where they settled in the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab. There was violence in the camp, too, so they fled to Nairobi. It took eight years for his family to be granted refuge in America.

Mustafa O. Nuur, a 23-year-old refugee from Somalia, outside his office in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Mustafa O. Nuur, a 23-year-old refugee from Somalia, outside his office in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Nuur had written his speech — an anecdote about how he learned the meaning of the phrase “break a leg” — before Trump halted refugees from Somalia and five other Muslim-majority nations for 120 days and banned refugees from Syria indefinitely. He debated whether to rip it up and say something more serious. He was surprised and angry and sad. The first thing he thought of, he told me, was how parents would have to tell their children that they are not coming to America after all. He gave an interview to USA Today while he was feeling emotional, and he was worried he had lost his temper on camera. He chose to keep this speech positive.

“Good evening, Lancaster,” he said. “There’s an old saying in my country that says you don’t judge a government by its politicians, but by its everyday people.”


On Saturday, protests erupted at major airports including JFK and SFO in response to President Trump’s executive order. But New York and San Francisco are no longer hubs for refugees — the huddled masses typically can’t afford to live there. Instead, many of them resettle in Middle America.

The ideal communities for refugees have affordable housing, jobs for non-English speakers, and a culture of neighborliness. Small cities like Concord, New Hampshire; Rutland, Vermont; and Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, and mid-size cities like Abilene, Texas; Lincoln, Nebraska; and Fargo, North Dakota, have significant refugee populations. Roughly 84 percent of refugee requests come from agencies in cities of under 1 million. One such town is Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where Conestoga wagons were once made. Lancaster County takes in more refugees per capita than almost anywhere in the country, according to numbers from the State Department and the Pennsylvania Refugee Resettlement Program.

Lancaster County takes in more refugees per capita than almost anywhere in the country.

A Christian woman who faced war and persecution in Sudan. A Burmese boy who lived in a Thai refugee camp from age 1 to age 16. A man who fled Iraq under Saddam Hussein and now owns Arabian Knight Hookah and Coffee Lounge. Lancaster accepts refugees from all over the world, absorbing roughly one refugee for every 327 residents. By contrast, New York City resettled about 165 refugees in 2016, or one for every 50,000 existing residents. The Lancaster County school district is now 4.5 percent refugees, according to the ACLU.

Lancaster County is in the middle of Amish farmland, about an hour and a half drive from Philadelphia. The area has a relatively low poverty rate, a high percentage of manual jobs, and is 90 percent white. The city of Lancaster, pop. 59,339, is now 40 percent Latino and voted 73 percent for Clinton, but it’s a blueberry in a cherry pie; Lancaster County has been a Republican stronghold since 1964. Some Trump signs can still be found in the surrounding area, which went 60 percent red.

Downtown Lancaster, Pennsylania.

Downtown Lancaster, Pennsylania.

So why does Lancaster take so many refugees? It’s part of the county’s identity. Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn as a haven for religious refugees, including Quakers, who faced imprisonment and torture in England and had their ears cut off under repressive laws written by Puritans in Massachusetts, and the Amish, who faced persecution in Europe. Other counties in Pennsylvania have similarly high rates of refugee acceptance.

“This county is known for being a place of refuge for people,” said J. Richard Gray, mayor of Lancaster city. “It’s natural for Pennsylvanians and even more natural for Lancastrians. We're proud of that, and we've done it for a long time.”

J. Richard Gray, mayor of the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

J. Richard Gray, mayor of the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

In December 2015, word spread about an “End the Influx of Refugees” rally being organized by a group from a neighboring county called Patriotic Liberty League. The plan was to congregate in front of the office of Church World Service, also called CWS-Lancaster, the area’s main resettlement agency. “We can’t trust what’s coming out of the Middle East,” one of the organizers told the local paper LNP. “Even if one person out of 100 is a terrorist, that person could kill a lot of people.”

Quickly, The Seed, a vegan restaurant down the street, announced it would be hosting a counter-rally, “Lancaster Welcomes Refugees,” for the same day. “It’s part of the DNA of the Lancaster community to welcome refugees and help them get settled,” one of the counter-rally organizers told LNP. The anti-refugee rally drew around 40 people. The pro-refugee rally got 200.

The two rallies inspired CWS-Lancaster to start an annual benefit concert. Last year’s drew 350 people. This year’s, which took place two days after Trump signed his executive order, drew more than 1,000. The concert raised $28,000. “It’s Lancaster,” said Sheila McGeehan Mastropietro, the agency’s office director. “We support refugees here.”

“It’s part of the DNA of the Lancaster community to welcome refugees and help them get settled.”

That doesn’t mean the area is free of prejudice. Nuur’s younger sister was bullied in school. The ACLU is suing the school district because it placed six teenage refugees in an alternative school where non-native speakers got less support. Mayor Gray acknowledged that there are people in the county and even in the city who are in favor of the ban on refugees.

Live-and-let-live used to be the Lancaster County style of conservatism, Gray said, because of the Amish influence. Living next door to people who don’t drive cars and plow their fields with mules and don’t bother anybody instills a sense of empathy for outsiders. “If you live around those kind of people, you tend to accept that being different as not being all that unusual,” Gray said. But that’s changed. As the local GOP advantage erodes — in the ’90s, the ratio was about 3 to 1, Republican to Democrat, and now it’s 1.8 to 1 — the county’s Republicans have gotten meaner.

“In the last 20 years, there’s been an element of judgmentalism that wasn’t around before,” said Gray. “It’s not conservative, but it’s in keeping with the times.”

“They say the Democratic Party is in trouble. I think it is,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s in as much trouble as the Republican Party is in, because we don’t have Donald Trump as the spokesperson.”


The refugee system is a tedious, orderly bureaucracy. First, refugees apply for a Refugee Status Determination from UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency. If granted, the UN will refer the applicant to a host country, where they will undergo that country’s screening process. For the U.S., this means a series of interviews and background checks of escalating intensity coordinated by the State Department and Homeland Security. Once approved, the refugee gets a contagious disease screening, a cultural orientation class, and is matched with one of nine private resettlement agencies. This process typically takes at least two years.

These agencies in turn work with 250 subcontractors that figure out where to place refugees based on things like climate preference, available services, and whether the refugee has any family already in the country. Cheap housing and availability of jobs are crucial. These restrictions, agency relationships with cities, and the fact that refugees follow their families, have established 190 communities around the country as refugee destinations. In fiscal year 2016, the U.S. admitted 84,994 refugees including 16,370 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo; 12,587 from Syria; 12,347 from Myanmar; 9,880 from Iraq; 9,020 from Somalia; 5,817 from Bhutan; 3,750 from Iran; 2,737 from Afghanistan; 2,543 from the Ukraine; 1,458 from Sudan; five from Libya; and two from Yemen, according to the State Department. Less than .01 percent of admitted refugees end up in Lancaster.

The refugee finds out the name of their destination, undergoes one last security check, and gets on a plane to America, where the resettling agency has arranged for them to be greeted by a welcoming team made up of people from their new community. This team takes the refugee back to their new home, which has been furnished and supplied with a spread of their native food. During the refugee’s first months in the country, members of the welcome team will walk children to school, set up doctors’ appointments, and help parents navigate the grocery store.

“In the last 20 years, there’s been an element of judgmentalism that wasn’t around before.”

“They took us to the hospital to get tests, they helped us enroll our children in school. They gave us training. I went to school for two or three months and was able to learn some basic English,” said Samer Sabagh, a shoemaker who fled Syria with his wife and four children after the schools closed and the bombing started. “It was perfect, praise be to God.”

Sabagh found a job cleaning egg-packing machines at a farm. Some of his family was resettled in Saudi Arabia, where corrupt sponsors are known to confiscate their refugees’ paychecks. But he’s worried for his future. “If more limitations are put on us, we would rather keep our dignity and live elsewhere,” Sabagh told me in his native Arabic. “But we’ve gone through so much already, we’re tired.”

Advocates say they don’t expect any laws to come down on the refugees who are already here, but some of Lancaster’s Syrian refugees are already wondering if they should flee to Canada, Sabagh said. “We’re afraid of new laws that would hurt us more,” he said.

Public opinion is not encouraging. An analysis by FiveThirtyEight found that Americans think the U.S. takes too many refugees, and are not opposed to immigration bans including refugees in the name of counterterrorism.


Mayor Gray issued a public statement after reading Trump’s executive order affirming Lancaster’s status as a sanctuary city.

J. Richard Gray, mayor of the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

J. Richard Gray, mayor of the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

“We cooperate with immigration authorities in cases that involve serious crimes, and we always comply with constitutional detainer requests,” the statement read in part. “What we do NOT do is ask City police officers to enforce federal immigration laws.”

“Our focus will remain on serving our community and on building relationships with our residents. This week’s Executive Order is an unnecessary distraction from that focus.”

The statement was originally less measured.

“I’m Irish, so I have a temper. So I lost my temper and wrote something, and then I cooled down and we rewrote it,” Gray said. “But we felt that there should be some assurance to the people that feel at risk right now that we’re not doing anything different at this point than what we’ve been doing.”

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Refugee supporters called Rep. Lloyd Smucker until his voice mail filled up, but the Republican congressman put out a statement supporting the ban. “Our community has a rich history of caring for those in need,” Smucker said in a statement. “The 16th District is fortunate to have numerous individuals and organizations doing great work to help resettle refugees. We are a better community because of it.” Then he defended the refugee ban, calling it “absolutely necessary.”

Lancaster can do its part to support refugees, but it just can’t send a message the way New York can, Gray told me. The big cities have to fight this, he said.


The refugee ban is maddeningly cruel. Refugees go through years of vetting, and they have no control over where they’re placed, which is probably why no terrorists have come through the refugee system since the Refugee Act of 1980. Meanwhile, in Syria, half the population is unemployed, 70 percent are living in extreme poverty, and 250,000 people are dead from bombing, starvation, and other dangers of the six-year civil war.

Mohammed Alghuthani is from Daraa, of the Siege of Daraa, in southern Syria. He and his wife walked for four hours along the Syria-Jordan border with their four young boys, heading for a refugee camp. The family dropped to the ground every 10 minutes to take cover from shelling, he recalled.

Mohammed Alghutani, center, a refugee from Syria, with his sons Moustafa, 5, Haroon, 12, and Ahmed, 10. Amer Alfayadh, a translator from Iraq, sits on the right.

Mohammed Alghutani, center, a refugee from Syria, with his sons Moustafa, 5, Haroon, 12, and Ahmed, 10. Amer Alfayadh, a translator from Iraq, sits on the right.

It took a year and three months for Alghuthani and his family to be approved to resettle in the U.S. “Honestly, I didn’t know much,” he said in Arabic. “I didn’t have any opinions, because I didn’t know anybody living in the United States or who had been to the United States. But, after what I saw, in the almost seven months I’ve been here, after what I saw from the people, I hope I never leave Lancaster.”

He now works in a laundromat, and his four children are enrolled in school. He’s confident the refugee ban will be overturned, because all the Americans he knows oppose it.

“The refugee, regardless of his religion, the refugee seeks only safety,” Alghuthani said. “Generally, he never seeks trouble. Anyone living in his country, regardless of his religion, wouldn’t want to leave. But, if circumstances force him to leave, of course, these are circumstances that are out of his hand, they run out of options. A refugee only asks for life — a dignified life.”

Arabic translation by Azza El Masri and Amer Alfayadh. Video by Billy Disney, Adrianne Jeffries, Jordan Oplinger, and Sam Thonis.
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