LANCASTER, Pa. — Middle school students from refugee families are expanding their language skills and cultural understanding, thanks to a program with Eastern Mennonite Missions involvement.
Leap into Language is a summer program staffed through a new partnership between EMM Kingdom teams, The Refugee Center at Reynolds and the School District of Lancaster.
“I was surprised we were still in Lancaster!” said 18-year-old Neal Flanagan of Marietta after his K-team’s first afternoon with students during the four-week program for students who have been in the U.S. three years or less.
The students belong to families that fled countries such as Afghanistan, Myanmar, Congo, Nepal, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan and Syria. K-team participants belong to youth groups from Marion Mennonite Church in Chambersburg, Mount Joy Mennonite Church and Petra Church in New Holland.
Making a difference for refugees who have experienced displacement and other trauma can be as simple as playing soccer or making cookies with them, teaching them card tricks and introducing them to water balloons. Having fun provides opportunities to use English and helps alleviate trauma.
“My mom thought the [Fourth of July] fireworks were guns. She hid in the basement, and we had to try hard to get her out,” said Ben, a student from Rwanda who has chosen an American name. Such comments from students, along with scenarios provided by EMM’s K-team staff, helped teens born in the U.S. begin to grasp the challenges that refugee families face.
“The K-team youth have come into their week on mission quite unsure about serving people of another religion or background,” said Emily Good, EMM summer intern who helped lead K-teams. “But they have left understanding that refugees are people, just like them, who have gone through some pretty rough stuff.”
K-team participants have also begun to grasp how much people have in common across cultures.
“They were amazed at how much common ground exists in the love of play and laughter and having fun,” said Angie Earl, EMM discipleship trainer who led the K-team staff. “I enjoyed seeing the youth group kids grow more comfortable with crossing cultural boundaries and realize that God was using them to bring down the walls that too often divide us. By the end of the week, refugee students and K-team youth were greeting each other with hugs and high fives.”
Good noted the value of K-team participants functioning as learners as well as teachers.
“Three kids from Syria taught some Arabic to the K-team from Marion Mennonite,” she said. “The Syrian-American kids felt honored that the Marion kids cared enough to understand some of their first language. There was much laughter as the [English as a Second Language] kids corrected the ‘English as a first language’ kids on their writing of Arabic symbols.”
In addition to partnering with Lancaster educators, the K-team from Mount Joy Mennonite Church spent a morning working with Church World Service Lancaster to set up a house for a Syrian family of six that arrived in the U.S. on July 13.
When the K-team visited the Islamic Community Center of Lancaster that afternoon, they learned that members of the center were serving as the official welcome team for this Syrian family. But they were busy celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan, during the week when the house needed to be set up. So CWS invited the K-team to help.
Lancaster receives more refugees than any other city in Pennsylvania, and CWS expects that to increase in the coming months.
When asked about next steps at their end of their K-team experience, youth from Mount Joy Mennonite Church said they hoped to spread the word that not all Muslims are like the terrorists portrayed in the media. They plan to speak up when they hear others equate welcoming refugees with welcoming terrorists, citing the rigorous screening process refugees go through before arrival in the U.S.
“I gained more cultural awareness and appreciation, discovered more about who I am in Christ and deepened relationships with people and God,” said Courtney Stains of Marion Mennonite Church. “God wants to use me to help others. I don’t need to be perfect. . . . I just need to open my heart.”
Leaders address anti-Muslim behavior
WASHINGTON — An Eastern Mennonite Missions consultant was one of 40 leaders who gathered July 11-13 to explore ways to combat anti-Muslim speech and behavior.
Among the academics, activists, journalists and politicians was Jonathan Bornman, a global consultant serving with EMM.
“I don’t think I have ever been in a more diverse working group,” said Bornman, a member of EMM’s Christian Muslim Relations Team. “We came together because we all believe that religious freedom is a bedrock of American culture and that religious freedom means freedom for all religions, including Islam. In light of this, we are concerned about the rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S.”
The group identified numerous factors feeding this rise: fear that grows in response to violence promoted in the name of Islam, failure to understand Islam’s diversity, American involvement in long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, economic insecurity, and political candidates and media who legitimize anti-Muslim sentiment.
“This anti-Muslim sentiment is not just out there somewhere. It happens here,” said Bornman, referring to his hometown of Lancaster, Pa. “Many Muslim refugees have been resettled here. Over the past two months I have talked with a young man whose middle-school-aged sister, who dresses in traditional hijab, was called ‘ISIS’ and had her scarf pulled at school. I have talked with an imam who told of children coming to Arabic class being taunted with ‘ISIS, ISIS, ISIS’ on the street in front of the mosque.”