Posted on December 28, 2021

Afghan Refugees Are Finding a Warm Welcome in Small-Town America

Nina Strochlic, National Geographic, December 15, 2021


For months, Afghan evacuees have been living in temporary camps on U.S. military bases. Now, as they move into permanent homes, some will be heading to communities with long histories of offering refuge to people fleeing danger.

But not necessarily to the bustling and multicultural cities you may imagine.

Lancaster, a quaint town of brick row homes with painted shutters, hosts the second-highest ratio of refugees in America, surpassed only by Clarkston, Georgia, and trailed by Bowling Green, Kentucky. Cities like New York and Minneapolis may absorb more refugees in total, but these three modest towns, according to the most recent figures available, take in more refugees per capita than anywhere else in the country.

In small town America, refugee resettlement programs have won over residents by reversing population declines and replenishing shrinking labor pools, data show. Religious traditions that encourage care for foreigners, as well as close-knit communities, have proved conducive to forming neighborly bonds. As one factory owner in Kentucky offered, resettlement works in Bowling Green “because we all know each other’s kids.”

Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Three centuries of refuge

Amish and Mennonite refugees arrived in Lancaster some 300 years ago seeking to escape religious persecution in Europe. Their descendants have been welcoming refugees ever since.


Refugees are defined as people fleeing persecution, and there are some 26 million of them in the world today. Only one percent are considered for resettlement in the U.S. each year, usually those who’ve lived for years, even decades, in makeshift camps in other countries. The admissions process involves at least a year of background and health checks, making refugees widely considered the most thoroughly vetted group of immigrants. They’re also the smallest in number.

Each year, the president and Congress decide how many refugees to let in. Since the program began in 1980, the admissions cap has averaged 95,000 people a year. But when former President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, he temporarily suspended resettlement as part of a ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries; he eventually reduced the number allowed in to 15,000 people.

President Joe Biden raised admissions for 2022 to 125,000. Newly arrived refugees will be spread across willing cities and towns, which determine their capacity in consultation with local health departments, schools, and public services. Communities are preparing for an influx, but after four years of record low arrivals and a corresponding dip in federal funding, resettlement agencies must first rebuild their programs.

The practice of welcoming refugees runs to the core of Lancaster, says Jonathan Charles. His ancestors came here in 1741 from Europe, where they were persecuted for their Mennonite faith. They’re buried in a graveyard next to Habecker Mennonite Church, a small brick building on a quiet country road.

Charles’s parents spent decades helping others in the same predicament as their forebears—from Ukrainian refugees after World War II, to a young dentist from Vietnam. In 2008, they hosted a family from the Karen ethnic group in Myanmar. By then, membership at Habecker had dwindled to only 40 aging congregants. Then Karen refugees began attending services.

On a recent Sunday, the church parking lot is full. Karen language prayer books are open and Htoo Gay, a Karen leader who trades off with two American pastors, is singing hymns at the pulpit. Toward the end of the service, a petite woman stands and shares grave news from Myanmar. Two land mines exploded in her home village, she says in Karen, with an English translation projected on the wall. “Please pray for those who still remain,” she asks. A pair of Mennonite women, their hair covered by crepe fabric, squeeze their eyes shut.

Today, the congregation at Habecker includes around 25 original members, most of whom are over 70, and some 200 Karen congregants. Jonathan Charles doesn’t resent being vastly outnumbered; he’s just glad his family’s church will survive beyond his generation. “I think it’s a testimony of what we believe louder than anything we can say,” he says.


Bowling Green, Kentucky: A matter of economy

On a recent night at the Nashville International Airport, an American Airlines pilot noticed seven lost-looking Afghan men wearing blue lanyards around their necks. They spoke only Pashto, but the pilot helped them make their way out of the arrivals gate and into the arms of Hassan Eman. “Welcome to America!” Eman said in English, shaking hands with each of them.

“Kentucky?” one asked. Eman piled their bags into a white van and steered toward Bowling Green, an hour north. He dropped them at their new two-story home in a newly built development. It was only a few years ago that Eman had made the same trip, but as a passenger. He’d fled Somalia when terrorists attacked his school bus, leaving him among six survivors. Now, as an employee of the International Center of Kentucky, Bowling Green’s refugee agency, he’s often tasked with welcoming new arrivals.

The reverberations of global unrest seem unlikely to reach this quintessential college town, centered around a grassy square bordered by a marquee theater, a circa-1888 jeweler, and a coffee shop packed with students. But when the government of Myanmar was overthrown earlier this year, there were protests on the streets of Bowling Green. Every July 11, residents march 8,372 steps in remembrance of the Bosnian men and boys killed in the 1992 Srebrenica genocide.

One morning this past November, two dozen people met on Zoom to discuss the recent influx of Afghan refugees. Never before had so many come so quickly—already 90 in three weeks and 50 more on the way. The International Center staff was working nights and weekends to move them out of a hotel that offered free rooms and into permanent homes.

Albert Mbanfu, the International Center’s executive director, opened the Zoom session with a plea. “If you know anyone who’s renting a house, we’ll rent it,” he said. As is the case across much of America, Bowling Green is short on both housing and workers. There are currently 7,000 jobs open at local businesses. Without rentals, Mbanfu would be forced to place Afghan arrivals outside the city, “depriving these companies of people they need.”

Not only are the new arrivals a valuable workforce, but an industry has bloomed around resettlement, delivering an economic boost. Mbanfu’s agency injects its federal budget (around $5 million this fiscal year) into the local economy by renting apartments, paying staff salaries, and shopping locally.


“There are certain companies that have aggressively recruited our refugee labor force,” says Leyda Becker, the international communities liaison for the city’s government. The pandemic, she says, along with a halt in immigration and refugee resettlement programs, as well as the retirement of baby boomers, has left positions unfilled. Competition for workers has pushed entry level pay to double the minimum wage.


In a sprawling factory across town, the air is hazy from fire-spewing machinery. A line of Congolese workers filters in for the 3 p.m. shift past an Iranian supervisor. Above the din, it’s possible to pick up snatches of the 27 languages spoken at Trace Die Cast, where recycled aluminum is turned into auto parts.

“Foundry work has always been filled with immigrants,” says Chris Guthrie, the company president. Once they were Italian, German, and Irish. Since the Bosnians arrived in the mid-1990s, Trace Die Cast has been hiring refugees. “They’re filing the jobs that people who grew up playing Nintendo everyday don’t want. It’s hard and hot.” Refugees now make up half the 400-person workforce, and Guthrie hopes the new Afghans can fill his 80 open positions.


Clarkston, Georgia: Governing an international village

It’s a Sunday night in Clarkston, Georgia, and the Kathmandu Kitchen is buzzing. Young men clink drinks at the bar and head to a row of lottery machines. Families dig into plates of slippery momo dumplings. The restaurant is named for the capital of Nepal, but its owners are Bhutanese refugees who came to Clarkston in the early 2000s.

Waves of global crises are mirrored in Clarkston’s population. The town has been called many things: the most diverse square mile in America, the Ellis Island of the South, a refugee ecosystem, a wall-free refugee camp. Of the more than 14,000 residents who live within the town’s 1.6 square miles, about half were born outside the U.S.

In a booth at Kathmandu Kitchen, Amina Osman sips a dark beverage from a pint glass and peers down at two phones. A cameo scarf frames her face. “Mama Amina,” as she’s known, is 94 years old and originally from Somalia. She’s holding court with Ted Terry, who, in red Converse sneakers and a baseball cap, fits his press-branding as “the millennial mayor.” Osman is telling him that in the rush to resettle the newly arriving Afghans, some have been left without jackets or groceries.


Clarkston, a historically white city, was chosen as a resettlement destination in 1980 for its proximity to Atlanta and high ratio of apartment buildings. But in 2013, when Terry became mayor, the city had placed a moratorium on refugees. There had been tensions over the use of a soccer field, and complaints that the new arrivals often walked on the roads. (With few sidewalks and without cars, they had little choice, Terry says.)

Terry ran on a safer streets platform and did something his predecessors hadn’t tried: He courted former refugees who’d lived in America for more than five years, became naturalized citizens, and could vote. He won the election and lifted the resettlement moratorium. Today, he credits that win in part to a volunteer who translated his message for the 75-odd Vietnamese voters.


Refugee resettlement agencies assist their clients for their first three months in America. After that, Clarkston has nearly 140 nonprofits offering services like childcare, English classes, coding camps, and birthing doulas. But engaging refugee communities in politics remains challenging. Segregated by language and culture, refugees often don’t have the advocating power of their U.S.-born counterparts. Some don’t know how to access the system. Others fled authoritarian regimes and fear speaking out.Eight years after the city lifted its refugee moratorium, resettlement is far less controversial. But there are other problems on the horizon: Gentrification is creeping in and affordable housing is getting scarce. Clarkston’s future as a diverse community is under threat.