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Nurturing Diversity in Harrisonburg

While it isn’t known for its “big city lights” or thousands of people swarming the sidewalks at all hours of the day, Harrisonburg contributes something much more meaningful and lasting as a community towards the greater good.

Just a stone’s throw away from downtown Harrisonburg, on the corner of East Elizabeth and Community Streets, is a tiny building with a huge impact. Church World Services Harrisonburg (formerly known as the Refugee Resettlement Program) provides refugees with full support and guidance as they settle into the Harrisonburg community.

Typically, people wouldn’t think of refugees that come to America ending up in Harrisonburg. But, in fact, there are refugees from many different countries living here, including those from Iraq, Eritrea, Cuba, Columbia, Ukraine, Ethiopia, and other countries that have suffered from horrible circumstances like civil war and military occupation.

A map of all the countries where clients and staff of the Refugee Resettlement Program have come from. Courtesy of the Refugee Resettlement Program Facebook page.

“Refugee” is a legal term referring to a person who has fled their country in fear of persecution or death because of their race, religion, or political views. Many people (including myself) often underestimate the plight of a refugee. Most refugees hope to return to their native country when it becomes more stable, but only about 1% of refugees actually do return and many are forced to resettle in another country. Often families can be resettled within a  few months, but some are not so lucky. This video, courtesy of harrisonburgrefugees.com, provides an inside look of the challenges that come with being a refugee.

The members of Church World Services work tirelessly to give refugees settlement options in Harrisonburg by providing help with housing, employment, health, and schooling. They want to ensure that newly settled refugees are able to become self-sufficient and active members in the community as they transition into their new life.

Image of Harrisonburg Refugees from the exhibit, “Stories of Hope: A Photo Gallery Depicting the Lives of Refugees in Harrisonburg,” on display at Clementine in February 2012. Photo by Julienne Jones, courtesy of the Refugee Resettlement Program Facebook page.

By becoming a mentor through Church World Services, I have seen first-hand the remarkable work being done by this organization in the community. For a few hours each week, I assist a newly settled Ethiopian family by providing tutoring for their children’s homework and English language assistance (although I am extremely impressed with their English skills already). Also, my co-mentor and I provide a welcoming attitude to Harrisonburg as they rebuild here.

A big reason Harrisonburg is a great place to be relocated is the diversity fostered in the community. The children in the family I work with often talk about their favorite places in Harrisonburg, like the Blue Nile and Hillandale Park, which hosts the annual Harrisonburg International Festival.

Photo by Holly Marcus, courtesy of the Harrisonburg International Festival Facebook page.

Events like the Harrisonburg International Festival are hosted throughout the area, providing community building and educational opportunities, as well as the chance for refugees to meet people of similar backgrounds and find their “home away from home.”

Another such event took place in downtown Harrisonburg last February, when Church World Service hosted a photography exhibit at Clementine called “Stories of Hope.” This project that resulted in the exhibit paired up local photographers with refugee families to highlight their ways of life and raise awareness within the broader community about what it’s like to be a refugee. Learn more about the exhibit with this post on the Do Downtown blog.

The focus on ethnic foods and diversity of ethnic restaurants in downtown Harrisonburg, such as Ethiopian cuisine at the Blue Nile, Caribbean and Venezuelan specialties at Arepera Las Chamas, and authentic Indian dishes at Indian American Café, to name a few, also creates a more welcoming community for people from all around the world. For a full list of ethnic restaurants, visit Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance’s website.

Ethiopian Nachos. Photo courtesy of Blue Nile.

The work of Church World Services should not be underestimated, as it is helping victims of brutal oppression become contributors to our growing community. To find out how you can contribute, head to harrisonburgrefugees.com.

Daniel Quinn is a writing intern at Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance and a senior Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communications major at James Madison University.

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