Welcome to Philly. Welcome to Lawncrest.
Since 2011, that sentiment — Welcome Home — has been the name the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church and Lutheran Children and Family Service have given first to a small furnished house on the 6000 block of Colgate St. and then on the 500 block of Alcott Street.
About two dozen volunteers have greeted several refugee families — from Iraq, Sudan and Bhutan — and have helped them adjust to their new, and sometimes frighteningly different, country.
“From the minute refugees arrive in Philadelphia and [during] the month they stay at Welcome Home, volunteers make every effort to get the families situated,” said John Xuereb, a spokesman for Liberty Lutheran, a nonprofit human service organization that oversees Lutheran Children and Family Service.
That involves getting Social Security cards, taking the newcomers for initial and follow-up medical exams and procedures, teaching them where to go shopping, how to use appliances and even, for some, how to flush a toilet and use a light switch, Xuereb said. The first bag of groceries is provided to each family.
Volunteers try to show “a lot of cultural sensitivity,” Xuereb said. The Lutheran Children and Family Service requires Welcome Home to “serve a culturally sensitive hot meal on the first day of their arrival.”
Families are helped to locate food stores where they can buy the ingredients needed for their native dishes, he said.
Setting up Welcome Home was a team effort of Prince of Peace Pastor Ben Krey and volunteer Helen Tobin. The congregation had helped about 70 refugees since 2009 before deciding on setting up a temporary home for people just arriving in the United States.
Welcome Home is a new concept, said the Rev. Dr. Jennifer Ollikainen, Liberty Lutheran’s director of ministries. It’s a “transitional landing place” for refugees, she said.
“As far as anyone knows,” Xuereb said, “ there is no other facility like this in the Philadelphia area.”
Welcome Home first was located on the 6000 block of Colgate, but moved to the 500 block of Alcott in March, Krey said last week.
Ollikainen said United Nations workers identify families in refugee camps and refer them to various agencies. Those who come to Philadelphia via the auspices of Liberty Lutheran Children and Family Service get to stay at Welcome Home and, on average, stay about a month, she said.
They get help finding permanent residences, Tobin said.
“I enjoy working with the refugees,” Tobin said. “I like getting them enrolled in school and watching the progress they make.”
There is a concentration on arranging education and employment, Xuereb said. “We help young people settle in schools. Many of them have never been in a classroom. For example, Helen Tobin regularly attends parent-teacher nights with the families. Refugees are coached in workplace etiquette as well.”
“We got a lot of help,” said Laxmi Dulal, 18, a member of the first of several Bhutanese families to live in Welcome Home. During the many months his family stayed in the house, he said, “We got every help that we needed.”
Dulal just completed his freshman year at Penn State’s Main Campus in State College.
Most recently, an Iraqi family lived in Welcome Home. A large Burmese family — Pah Toh, Ta Klae and their five children — just moved in Aug. 3, Krey said.
All the families who reside in the house are refugees, Xuereb said.
Tobin is very dedicated to helping them, Krey said.
“The love of Christ fills her and spills out of her,” he said.
One family that lived in Welcome Home during the past year, Xuereb said, is Sudanese. The family members were displaced twice. They first fled from Sudan to Libya, and then fled Libya to the United States.
An Iraqi family that had been helped by the church and lived in the parsonage in 2009 turned around and helped the Iraqi family that just left, Krey said.
“Prince of Peace had no pastor then,” Krey said, explaining how the family could live in the parsonage. When he arrived later in 2009, the family moved to a nearby home, he said.
The Iraqi family that arrived first in Philadelphia helped find housing for the family that came later, the pastor said. “They’re showing them the ropes,” he said. “That’s exactly what we want to see happen.”
And some of Welcome Home’s former residents are giving back to the volunteer who helped them, Xuereb said Monday. Tobin recently had knee-replacement surgery, he said, and some of the house’s former residents are helping her with her recovery.
“They just stepped forward,” he said. “It’s a testimony to her.”
Welcome Home recently had been vacant for a month, Krey said during a July 22 phone interview.
Frequently, when occupants move on, they find homes in the Northeast.
“The folks have tended to stay in the Northeast by choice,” Xuereb said. “Others, like Bhutanese refugees, have moved to South Philadelphia, where there is a Bhutanese community.”
As families move on, they don’t leave empty-handed.
“We collect stuff for families to take with them when they move out,” Ollikainen said.
Towels and linens are given to the departing families, and volunteers try to get them a TV, Krey said.
What do his congregation’s members think of Welcome Home?
Some are very interested in the refugees’ progress, Krey said. Others, not so much.
“It’s a mixed bag,” he said. “Many [congregation members] are not interested, and there are many who ask for updates” on the refugees’ progress.
The church and the Welcome Home volunteers don’t interfere with refugees’ religious practices. They do, however, invite them to services. That’s given Krey some memorable experiences.
Two little kids from Bhutan who had moved with their families a little farther away from the church “would walk to my house occasionally and knock on the door. They would say, ‘I love Jesus and Jesus loves you,’ and they would run away,” Krey said.
And Krey said he has learned how to say, “The Lord Jesus loves you and will protect you” in Nepali.
The Iraqis who stayed at the house were fluent English speakers, Krey said. But many, Ollikainen said, have very limited English.
“One of our greatest needs is English for Speakers of Other Languages teachers,” Krey said.
It’s not demanding, he said. Not including prep time, volunteers would have to be able to give just an hour a week for class time, he said.
People who had to learn English themselves would be especially helpful as ESOL teachers, Krey added.
“If English is your second language, that’s warmly received,” he said.
Volunteers receive training, he said. Anyone interested should call Helen Tobin at 215-742-8106. ••