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Centre County Group Hits Roadblocks In Helping Refugees

Refugee Ahmad Issa plays with his children.
Daniel Sonnentag

The Centre County Refugee Welcome Committee is stuck in a holding pattern.

The committee, which includes eleven religious groups, had hoped to be helping a refugee family settle in Centre County this year, according to member Penny Eifrig.

“It really is a real treasure to be able to get a family," Eifrig said. "And it’s interesting that we’ve been trying to get a family for so long, and basically in the summer we were told that due to the incredibly limited number of refugees coming into America, that they’ve run out and so we wouldn’t have a family for this year most likely to come into State College.”

The Committee is now waiting until October to find out whether Church World Services will be sending a refugee family to Centre County.

Refugees continue to pour out of Syria and other hot spots in the Middle East. But President Trump cut the number of refugees the United States will accept from about 100,000 to only 50,000.

Phil Jones is a Boalsburg minister who was instrumental in helping a refugee family from the Middle East settle here a few years ago. He says the need is too great for Americans to turn away.

“Our nation tells us that we can only resettle 50,000 individuals and we realize that’s a drop in a bucket," Jones said. "We want to say no.”

Eifrig volunteered helping refugees in Berlin. But she says Americans don’t have to look that far to understand what it means to be a refugee.

“All you have to do is look to Texas and see what a refugee looks like," Eifrig said. "And I don’t think Americans think in those terms very often, but what if you were fleeing the flood and everything you had was lost and you arrived somewhere and they said, ‘We don’t want you,’ how horrible that would be.”

Michael Ozaki is Associate Pastor at the State College Presbyterian Church, which is one of the religious organizations in the Centre County Refugee Welcome Committee. He says that while federal policy has turned against refugees, Centre County can be a place for what he calls "radical welcome."

“Usually when we talk about welcome, it’s a passive act. It is waiting for someone to come to us and we welcome them in as long as they are this kind of person. And then they leave, so that life can get back to normal," Ozaki said. "Radical welcome instead goes toward the person who is unwelcome, who is othered, to find them, to let them know that welcome actually exists here. And then to bring them in, understanding that they are going to change you, they’re going to change your life.”

State College Mayor Elizabeth Goreham supports the committee’s hopes to bring more refugees to Centre County. She says refugees make Centre County a better place.

“This expands our awareness of what’s going on in the world," Goreham said. "It’s like bringing the world to us.”

The soonest the committee will find out whether a refugee family is coming through Church World Services will be next month. In the meantime, people who want to help are being asked to donate to help one of the Syrian refugees Penny Eifrig met in Berlin. She says if Mohammed Issa gets enough donations, he can move his family out of a refugee camp to join him in Berlin. People who are interested in that effort can follow links at the WPSU website.

Photo exhibits on refugee children will open this fall in State College.