A warm welcome

A loc­al church and its vo­lun­teers are help­ing refugees ad­just to a new life in the United States. 

  • Helping hands: Martha Freeman (left), case manager for Lutheran Children and Family Service, and volunteer Al Pfender sit outside the Welcome Home as Hsa Gay Moo looks out the window. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

  • There are three bedrooms within the Welcome Home. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

  • Families first: Four of Pah Toh and Ta Klae’s children (from left) Hsa Lweh Moo, Hsa Ku Moo, Hsa Gay Moo and Hsa Blut Moo play in their living room. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

  • Families first: Pah Toh (left) and his wife, Ta Klae, get acquainted with their new kitchen at the Welcome Home. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

  • Home is where the heart is: A Burmese family has come to temporarily live in the Welcome Home in Lawncrest, which is provided by Prince of Peace Lutheran Church and Lutheran Children and Family Service. The house helps refugees adjust to a new life in this country. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

Wel­come to Philly. Wel­come to Lawn­crest.

“Wel­come home.”

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. ••

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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