Mtabi Ebeula, a slight man of 57, speaks softly as he recalls fleeing the Democratic Republic of the Congo with his family to escape the rebels.
“They were killing people,” he says. “I left because of them.”
Surrounded by his wife and nine of his 11 children, Ebeula is speaking in the living room of their new home in downtown Lancaster, Pa., just two days after arriving in the United States from Tanzania on March 14.
For 20 years, Ebuela and his family lived in a refugee camp in Tanzania, where Ebuela — a carpenter — did maintenance work around the camp. During that time, he underwent the long, arduous process to qualify for resettlement in the U.S. where two sons — one in Texas, and the other in Minnesota —now live.
The Church World Services immigration and refugee office in Lancaster is resettling the Ebeula family. CWS is one of nine domestic nonprofit organizations funded by the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees across the U.S.
But the Trump administration, citing the need to protect national security and jobs, has sharply reduced the 2018 refugee cap to 45,000 and is admitting them so slowly that in the first six months of the fiscal year starting in October, only a little more than 10,000 refugees had been admitted.
As a result, the State Department informed its resettlement agency partners in December that they needed to shrink their operations.
A State Department official told VOA the move will “improve efficiencies and reduce surplus capacity” and allow “the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program to run in a way that is fiscally responsible and sustainable.”
‘A big hit’
The CWS office in Lancaster, which gets $1.2 million from the State Department to run its programs, has already let staff go. Office director Sheila Mastropietro said six staffers have been laid off, and another two reassigned.
“To me, that was a big hit,” Mastropietro told VOA while sitting in her tiny office in downtown Lancaster. “We’ve been in Lancaster for over 30 years, we’ve built up capacity to have 31 people on staff with nine different refugee-supporting programs.”
Should U.S. policy change someday to allow more refugees into the country, Mastroprieto believes CWS and other resettlement agencies will find it difficult to gear up.
“As everything goes down, and people are laid off and go into other careers, there’s going to be a need to build that all up again, and that’s going to come at a cost,” she said.
The Trump administration’s lower refugee quota has significantly reduced arrivals in Lancaster.
“In 2016, we had 360, and I’m guessing this year we’ll only get 125 people,” Mastroprieto said. “Last year, we received 279, even though we had projected 550, but then the travel ban went into effect.”
The nationality of those arriving in Lancaster has changed, too.
“The majority of our populations were Syrians and Somalis,” Mastroprieto noted. Now, refugees from Myanmar and the DRC are the main nationalities being resettled in the South Central Pennsylvania city. Syria and Somalia are among the countries whose citizens are barred from traveling to the U.S. under the travel ban.
With a population of nearly 60,000, Lancaster is a center of light manufacturing, food processing and agribusiness. CWS helps refugees find jobs in these sectors, a vital necessity because each refugee gets only a one-time grant of $925 from the U.S. government to settle in. This money has to cover rent, food, transportation and other expenses, so the pressure to find a job quickly is great.
The Lancaster office has a placement rate of 80 percent, says Mastroprieto, who adds she frequently gets calls from businesses looking for refugees for jobs they cannot fill.
No tips for police officers
CSW’s Omar Mohamed instructs the Ebeula family as part of a 90-day support program.
“You cannot give money or tips to police officers or government officials of any type, even as a thank-you for assistance. No money, no tips,” he warned.
Mohamed's English is instantly translated into Swahili by a volunteer. Both Mohamed and the translator are themselves Somali refugees.
CSW gives new arrivals orientation tours of the city and the public transit system. Staffers and volunteers help the refugees apply for social security cards, so they can work and enroll their children in school. Working with Lancaster’s numerous churches, CWS organizes English classes.
Lancaster residents appear to have accepted the foreigners, who often shop for fresh produce at the restored red-brick building downtown that houses a thriving central market.
Meck’s Market produce stand manager Bruce Markey welcomes them.
“I think it’s wonderful for us as a city. I think it brings many cultures together,” Markey tells VOA. “If you can’t open your arms to people that need it, then what’s the point? They have nowhere to go, and we have [a lot]. So, it seems natural.”
Other residents are more reserved. Anne Flynn, who helps run a souvenir stand at the market, is in favor of refugee resettlement, as long as the refugees assimilate. “I have no problem with people coming, as long as they want to live like Americans,” she says.
Mark Vergenes, head of a local financial services company, agrees. He supports the Trump administration’s decision to slow refugee arrivals and to implement additional security screening measures. “I do think the vetting, the checking, no rush to get people through the system,” is good, he says. “I’m for hit the brakes a little bit, make sure what we’re getting here. I’m for open arms, taking care of everybody I can take care of. But when you get that much that fast, that mass coming in, you gotta have a plan.”
Yet, with an estimated 65 million people internally displaced or living as refugees around the world, Mastropietro believes America should not abandon its policy of resettling people fleeing war and persecution.
“The United States has always been a leader in this, and now I feel that we’re really regressing,” she said. “We have a lot to offer. We’re so rich, so wealthy, and so many people in the United States want to do it because of their ancestry, because of the way they got here. So, we have to come back to that. And we can.”
For the Ebeula family, huddled in their new home as cold March winds whip outside, coming to Lancaster offers a fresh start after living for years in a refugee camp.
“This is my new country now,” Ebeula says, “and I hope me and my family will adapt to this life. I hope no one will arrest us, that no one causes us any problems.”