By Jana Kasperkevic
Shamaine Daniels wasn’t ready for the phone call she received on January 6: While she and her friends in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania were knitting pink hats and planning to attend the post-inauguration Women’s March on Washington, Catholic Charities called her to let her know that the two refugees from Sudan — Suad and Anwar — whom she had agreed to host, would be arriving on January 18.
Though she waited for more than a year after volunteering to open her home to two refugees, the 38-year-old’s first thought was that she needed more time to get ready.
“I had just done a run to Costco and my whole refrigerator was full,” she laughed. “I was like, ‘I don’t have space for them to put their food because my fridge is full of Costco stuff.’ Tons of butter. I don’t know why I need so much butter. And tons of sliced cheese. I don’t know why I have so much cheese.”
Despite her qualms about sharing her common areas and her overpacked refrigerator with two strangers who don’t speak her language, Daniels didn’t ask Catholic Charities for more time. That, it turns out, worked in favor of Suad and Anwar. The couple entered the United States as refugees on January 18. On January 27, President Donald Trump signed an executive order designed to prevent any further refugees from Sudan, among other countries, from entering the U.S.
“It’s kind of wrong to compare the annoyance of not having the space all to yourself and weigh that equally to this couple being dead, or they could be dying, or they could be living in substandard housing, indefinitely,” said Daniels, looking back on her initial hesitation. “It’s just not equal.”
Daniels is no stranger to the issues that refugees faced in the U.S. prior to Trump’s executive order, even if this is her first time agreeing to host any in her home: she runs an immigration law practice out of her three-story home in Harrisburg.
“When the ban happened, I had a lot of clients calling me asking me if they can trust the documentation they have,” said Daniels.
Most of her clients are from South America and Europe, and many are on the path to becoming American citizens, but they worry that Trump’s America might not honor where they are in the lengthy process. As such, they are starting to plan for what’s next. Many are putting off buying homes and cars, and are thinking of moving money to their home countries, just in case.
Still, despite her law practice, Trump’s order came as a surprise to Daniels, too. “I am not sure what I expected the ban to be,” she said, describing it alternatively as “counterproductive,” “asinine” and “destructive.” The order, for instance, makes the U.S. an unreliable partner and travel destination, she said. “What if Trump decided to get mad at, I don’t know, Germans tomorrow, and issued a German ban? Why would anyone want to vacation or come [to the U.S]? He just made the U.S. such a risky investment.”
Daniels is no outlier among her neighbors in Central Pennsylvania. From October 2010 to September 2015, almost 15,000 refugees were resettled in Pennsylvania, according to state and federal records. During those five years, the area that includes Harrisburg and the nearby city of Lancaster accepted the highest number of refugees.
A state official told The Patriot-News that the number of refugees in the Keystone State is so high because of “relatively affordable housing, and a lot of employment opportunities that range from warehouse packing/shipping, aggregate farming, and housekeeping for first jobs.”
In 2016, about 85,000 refugees came to America. During that time, Catholic Charities of Harrisburg helped resettle more than 270, according to Amin Habeeb, their project manager for immigration and refugee services. With a population of 49,188, that means that Harrisburg welcomed at least one refugee for every 182 residents; the resettlement rate in New York City was “one for every 50,000 existing residents” in 2016.
Harrisburg is not the only smaller, non-coastal city known for opening its doors to refugees. In interviews with the Wall Street Journal, officials from Midwest cities in Michigan and Kansas emphasized the need for immigrants, who help the local economy.
“To create policies that push people out, when small towns need people in, just seems counterproductive,” said Daniels, pointing out that resettled refugees contribute to and help revitalize local communities.
Daniels has lived in Harrisburg since 2005: Originally from Venezuela, she came to the U.S. in her early teens, living in Philadelphia before moving out of state for college. She doesn’t regret settling in Harrisburg, which she describes as a “welcoming city.”
“One of the reasons I’ve stayed in Harrisburg is, of all of the cities I have lived in the U.S., it’s the only one where no one told me to go back to where I came from,” she said. “I heard that in Philadelphia, I heard that in Cincinnati, I heard that out in Washington [state]. I’d go volunteer in places like North Dakota and people would tell me to go back to where I came from.”
Habeeb agrees. “We feel the Harrisburg community is very welcoming to refugees, and they are very generous with their donations starting from furniture and household items to clothing and even helping in serving our clients,” he said.
When they arrived, for instance, local volunteers cooked culturally appropriate food for Suad and Anwar. Another volunteer who speaks Arabic picked them up at the airport, welcoming them to their new home. And, a few days into her stay with Daniels, Suad decided to show her gratitude to her hostess.
“She was so thankful to be here that she decided to clean my whole house,” said Daniels. “She was so proud.”
With the help of a translator, Daniels thanked Suad.
Looking back, she has no regrets about her decision to open up her home. “It’s not a lifelong commitment. It’s just a commitment for enough time for them to get on their feet and make it on their own. It’s definitely worth it.”