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Amish share meal with refugees, bridging gap between cultures

Lancaster County has become a destination for refugees worldwide, with an estimated 23,000 as of 2016.

Syrian refugee Hevin Khilo (center) has a conversation and lunch with an Amish family on Saturday in Strasburg, Pa.
Syrian refugee Hevin Khilo (center) has a conversation and lunch with an Amish family on Saturday in Strasburg, Pa.Read moreBradley C Bower

STRASBURG, Pa. — The only Amish man in the room stood by a window and stroked his long beard, listening to a Somalian refugee talk about his new life in America. Ivan Beiler’s family ate chicken pot pie and stuffed grape leaves at a nearby table with a family that had fled Syria. His wife, Martha, wore a simple white bonnet; the woman across from her, a hijab.

Goats bleated in the barn below them.

Beiler’s family has lived in the United States for centuries, but with every refugee story he heard on this foggy Saturday afternoon, the vast differences between them and their guests faded.

“I can actually relate to their stories of moving here and trying to fit in, because we’re so different, too, and that’s the way it is,” Beiler, 54, told the crowd. “We are different, and you can feel that.”

About 75 people paid $45 apiece to eat lunch and listen to each other’s life stories last weekend at Beiler’s farm, a cross-cultural exchange for the Amish, refugees, and the surrounding community. The event was a collaboration between LoKal Experiences, a tourism company that aims to open up the Amish world to outsiders, and Bridge, a Lancaster-based venture that offers experiences with Lancaster County’s large refugee community.

Many Bridge experiences are dinners in refugee homes. Founder Mustafa Nuur, a Somalian refugee, said his favorite is the “Bring your uncle to refugee dinner,” which requires a guest to bring someone who has never before met a refugee.

Nuur has organized more than 2,300 events since 2017.

“When I came to America, I realized this is a very big and diverse country, but nobody knows each other, nobody talks to each other. You don’t know your neighbor or anybody that doesn’t look like you,” Nuur said before the meal, which also drew refugees from Congo and Myanmar. “I realized that to love your neighbor, you need to get to know them first.”

Nuur fled Somalia after his father was killed in front of the family for refusing to contribute to a terrorist organization. He escaped with his mother and seven siblings to a refugee camp in Kenya, where he lived for eight years. The family came to Lancaster County in 2014.

In September, Lancaster became the first city in Pennsylvania to be deemed a “certified welcoming city” by Welcoming America, a nonprofit that encourages communities to open their doors to immigrants and refugees. In 2016, The Inquirer reported that Lancaster County was home to more than 23,000 refugees. The Amish population there is approximately 33,000.

“Everyone knows when you Google ‘Lancaster County,' the first thing that comes up is Amish folks,” Nuur said. “So I knew the Amish would be my neighbors. I realized, coming here, that America isn’t one place, but all the different places together make it what it is."

Nuur said one “uncle” dinner resulted in his going hunting in West Virginia. He was given the nickname “Big Billy Joe” and didn’t kill a deer, he said, because he made too much noise and couldn’t sit still. Later, the family went line dancing.

“It was the most fun I’ve had in a long time,” Nuur said. “It just goes to show, you put yourself in another person’s space, you will know them.”

Nuur’s first job in the U.S. was building sheds with the Amish. His brother works on an Amish farm.

“He has an Amish accent now,” he said.

Phil Lapp, owner of LoKal, grew up Mennonite and has known the Beilers since he was a child. In June, he hosted a tour of the Beiler farm, which was used in the filming of the 1985 film Witness. That movie starred Harrison Ford as a Philly detective who falls in love with an Amish woman while hiding from crooked cops on her family’s farm.

“My dad was Amish. My grandparents were Amish and left the community in 1958. Ivan and Martha babysat me and are dear friends of ours,” Lapp said. “The Amish have taught me the value of simplicity and minimalism. They are culturally rich and financially poor. They are, to me, the most kind, sweet people you can meet.”

Lapp entered the “experience tourism” world in 2017 when he ran into Norwegian tourists in Lampeter who were heading to an Amish “tourist trap.” He offered to guide them to something more authentic instead, and a business was born. He also offers tours of Lancaster County breweries and dive bars.

Attendees at Saturday’s meal were mostly from Lancaster County and surrounding areas. Many were affiliated with Church World Services (CWS), a nonprofit that works with churches and other organizations to help refugees.

“We’ve been resettling refugees in Lancaster County for 32 years now,” said Stephanie Gromek, the communications director for CWS in Lancaster.

The meal included pot pie as well as eggplant stew, samosas, and chicken and rice dishes. Afterward, the Amish served whoopie pies for dessert. When the meal was over, Ahmad Khilo, 22, talked about his family’s long journey from war-torn Aleppo, Syria, to Turkey, then to Lancaster with his parents and four siblings.

Khilo said his home and the family business were “destroyed by bombs.”

“English is not our second language, by the way. It’s our fourth language,” Khilo said. “I speak Kurdish, Arabic, Turkish, and now learning English. Still learning."