Lancaster Spotlight, Part 2: A Refugee's Tale : Planet Money In our second spotlight episode on Lancaster County, we look into what Lancaster's success can tell us about the relationship between refugees and the local economy.
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Lancaster Spotlight, Part 2: A Refugee's Tale

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Lancaster Spotlight, Part 2: A Refugee's Tale

Lancaster Spotlight, Part 2: A Refugee's Tale

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Mustafa Nuur was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1992. His father owned and ran a few small businesses.

MUSTAFA NUUR: We had an ice cream shop, and then we had a clothing store. But the ice cream would've been there.

GARCIA: The big moneymaker back then.

NUUR: The big - because Somalia is a very hard country.


But when Mustafa was 11, the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab asked his father to provide them with funding. His father refused multiple times, Mustafa says. And then one day around noon, members of al-Shabab came to Mustafa's house. And in front of Mustafa, his mother and his seven younger siblings, they murdered his father in their courtyard. By 4 p.m., the family was fleeing Somalia.

NUUR: So we didn't have any time to, like, start thinking about where we - should we go or what we - should we take. We didn't even take any of our belongings. The only item I just managed to grab was a bedsheet from my bed. That's pretty much it.

GARCIA: That's all you left with.

NUUR: That's all I left with.

GARCIA: Mustafa and his family spent roughly the next decade - until he was 22 - in refugee camps in Kenya until they were resettled in Lancaster City, Pa., in 2014.

VANEK SMITH: And out of these tragic circumstances, just five years later, Mustafa is a small-business owner, just like his dad was. And refugees like him and other immigrants are a meaningful part of a complicated success story - the story of how Lancaster City and the surrounding Lancaster County have prospered economically.

I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: And I'm Cardiff Garcia. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY, and you are listening to Episode 2 of our spotlight on Lancaster County, Pa. On today's episode, what Lancaster's success tells us about the relationship between refugees and their local economy.


VANEK SMITH: About two years into their stay at a Kenyan refugee camp after fleeing Somalia, Mustafa Nuur and his family found that they had been selected to be resettled in the U.S. And initially, they had mixed feelings.

NUUR: So when the country selects you, you're notified two years in that, hey, the United States has selected you. And that has - in the refugee camp, that always comes as a great news - at the same time, a bad news because the United States takes the longest to process anybody. They have a harder process. They have a harder scrutiny, harder background checks.

GARCIA: And he's right. The vetting process for refugees coming to the U.S. is intense. There's multiple interviews and background checks and security checks by different branches of the U.S. government, fingerprints, tests for contagious diseases. It can take years. For Mustafa's family, it took a decade.

VANEK SMITH: But eventually, as with other refugees who make it through the whole process, the family was paired with a resettlement agency. Mustafa and his family were paired with Church World Service, which has a branch in Lancaster. It's a nonprofit that receives funding from the federal government and from private donors. And it sets up refugee families with a few months of housing, some counseling services, food and clothing.

NUUR: And then they try to find you a job right away because once you arrive here, you have to start paying back your bill for - to the government for bringing you.

GARCIA: A lot of people don't know this, but yes, refugees pay back the U.S. government for the cost of flying here. For Mustafa's big family, those were not cheap flights.

NUUR: It was around 11 to 12 hundred per person. So a family of 10 people - you get a bill of almost 10,000 right away.

VANEK SMITH: Mustafa says he found Lancaster City and Lancaster County unexpectedly welcoming to his refugee family and to other refugee families. And that, in fact, is the city's reputation. In 2016, before the Trump administration started limiting how many refugees could come to the U.S., the number of refugees that were resettled in Lancaster City hit a peak of 407. As a share of the city's population, that's almost 23 times more refugees resettled than in the U.S. as a whole, which is why the city was labeled the refugee capital of America by the BBC.

GARCIA: So why is Lancaster able to resettle so many refugees? One reason is resources. For example, Church World Service, the resettlement agency, is able to partner with local organizations to provide services beyond just the basics, beyond the initial housing and food and clothes. For example, there's a nonprofit that provides health care to refugees. There's English-language tutors, the school district and universities to help with education, employment programs and companies that will actively try to hire refugees and train them.

VANEK SMITH: Sheila Mastropietro runs the Lancaster office of Church World Service. And she says that all these resources make it possible for Lancaster to accept even the hardest cases, like when there's a huge refugee family of 10 or 15 people; or when a refugee has a medical issue and can't work; or if a refugee only speaks a really obscure foreign language.

SHEILA MASTROPIETRO: There are no cases in this area that we would refuse. So we do have the option when a case is sent to us by our national office to say - they say - basically, they're saying, will you accept this case? So we always do.

VANEK SMITH: And it's not just tangible resources. There's something else that has given Lancaster the ability to absorb refugees - its history. Starting in the early 18th century, members of the Mennonite and Amish churches were fleeing persecution in Europe and started moving to Lancaster. The county still has a huge Amish and Mennonite population, and the value of welcoming people in need of a new home has remained.

GARCIA: Steve Nolt, a professor at Elizabethtown College, spoke with us at the Mennonite Historical Society, which features exhibits about the Amish and Mennonite history of Lancaster.

STEVE NOLT: Well, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, for example, Mennonites in this area were deeply involved in the resettlement of refugees from Southeast Asia - from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. And that's - that was motivated both by, you know, Christian humanitarian concerns and also concerns that - as Mennonites, as conscientious objectors, as pacifists.

VANEK SMITH: And in fact, Mustafa's own experience right after arriving in Lancaster reflects this.

NUUR: My first-ever job was - I worked with Amish. I used to work for a company that build garages and sheds. So I used to install windows.

GARCIA: He did well enough at this job installing windows for these sheds that he was hired by a company called E-Impact Marketing, which provides marketing for Amish companies in the area and which trained Mustafa in web design. Mustafa would end up becoming their head web developer.

VANEK SMITH: And then he started thinking more broadly. He started a company called Bridge, which is a website where people can sign up to have dinner in the home of a refugee family in the area. The refugee family will cook the meal and share their story, and the family will also set a fee for the dinner, which it gets to keep. Bridge charges a service fee, which is how it makes money. Mustafa's original pitch for Bridge won a business plan competition, which provided the funding to get it started.

NUUR: My pitch was that I was going to - instead of retraining or giving refugees a new skill, why not give them a platform where they can earn an income with what they already know and what they already have, which is their culture and their food?

GARCIA: Now, in part one, we explained how refugees and immigrants contribute to an economy by helping its population grow and giving new businesses more people to sell to and to hire.

Adam Ozimek, the Lancaster-based economist, says that stories like Mustafa's also demonstrate the more subtle ways that immigrants and refugees contribute.

ADAM OZIMEK: They move into neighborhoods that, you know, others might find less desirable, and they start interesting businesses. And they really contribute to the diversity of consumer experiences downtown. And you can - in downtown Lancaster, you can eat at a Vietnamese place. You can eat at a Nepalese place. There's just a huge amount of variety there.

VANEK SMITH: Mustafa says his company is making money, and he even has plans to expand into neighboring York County. And he adds that his story shows the symbiotic relationship between the Lancaster economy and its refugees.

GARCIA: And it goes something like this. The success of the economy makes it possible for the city to offer resources to these refugees so that they can prosper, and their prospering feeds right back into the success of the Lancaster economy.

NUUR: So what happens is when a refugee person comes here, the community - this community has done a very good job of harnessing that refugee person as a whole, from employment to training to job opportunities to entrepreneurship training. So I went through those different circles of coming here, receiving welcome, finding a stable job and then developing a skill, which is a development - web development, and then using that skill to create a company. And now - so it's a great circle, and it's a - and it's something which is very - I don't want to say unique, but special about Lancaster.

GARCIA: Plus, Lancaster's now a pretty good place to get a bite to eat.

This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Leena Sanzgiri, fact-checked by Nadia Lewis. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.


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