The Bridgewater Church of the Brethren has always been involved in administering to the poor and needy. Part of this continued outreach has been our refugee resettlement program. For forty-five years, we have provided resettlement to this country for persons suffering from oppression because of political, religious, ethnic reasons or naturual disasters.
The first resettled refugee family for which we have record is a Dutch family fleeing from the change in government in Indonesia in l957. This was followed during the l970’s and l980’s when we resettled a number of Kurds, Eritreans, Ethiopians and Vietnames families. The former three groups were mainly professional people who had to accept menial jobs in our area to help them get resetted. The Vietnamese were mainly fishing families who soon moved to coastal areas so they could resume their traditional employment.
During these early years we received our refugee families thru the Brethren Service Center at New Windsor, Maryland. They were usually kept there for a month to start their assimilation to American culture. After they arrived in Bridewater, sometimes we needed to have church families keep the refugee family in their home for four or five weeks until we cold locate affordable rental housing in Bridgewater for them.
It finally became so difficult to locate suitable rental housing in the Bridgewater area that the Refugee Committee jumped at the opportunity to purchase a large house at a reasonable price being offered for sale by Bridgewater College. We were able to get substantial donations from church members for purchase price and renovation costs. A large number of church members donated many hours of labor for extensive electrical, plumbing, painting, and insulation renovations to convert this house into two two-bedroom apartments. At least one wedding resulted from acquaintances developed during this renovation work by several retired church members who had previously lost their spouses. Our refugee apartment house at 107 Broad Street in Bridgewater was labeled the Hospitality House, When the Bridgewater Presbyterian Church needed the lot on which our Hospitality House stood for a parking lot to give them more room for a church expansion, we were able to trade our house with them for another two-bedroom apartment house one block away, at 205 Broad Street.
When it appeared that the need for refugee resettlement by churches was increasing instead of diminishing, we greatly enlarged our Refugee Committee to assign to different people various sponsorship activities as housing, furnishings, food, employment, transportation, education, health, religion, and legal aspects.
About this time the US State Department assigned refugee resettlement sponsorship to Church World Service, and in our state the Virginia Council of Churches assumed allocation of available refugees to member denominations. The Harrisonburg Refugee Resettlement Office of the Virginia Council of Churches eventually enlarged to a staff of eight providing invaluable service to the more technical aspects of sponsorship to local churches. As it is rather expensive and time-consuming to resettle a family, we found it expedient to lease one of our Hospitality House apartments to other churches for refugee resettlement, to keep the two apartments filled. Thus in this way we aided nine other local churches in their refugee resettlement activities during the past ten years. Through this leasing arrangement, we were able to aid in the resettling fifteen additional refugee families composed of thirty adults and twenty-five children, from eight different countries.
The first refugees received by our church through the Virginia Council of Churches was a Russian family in l99l. In spite of the prohibition of religious discrimination by the Russian constitution, Baptist and evangelical Christians were being inprisoned and even killed. Thus we aided in resettling a number of such families from former Russian states of Azerbijan, Belorussia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine during early l990Õs. Then in l997 we sponsored one of the first Bosnian family to settle in our area. This young family with one pre-school child had spent the previous two years in several different refugee camps under very primitive conditions. They had unusually high expectatons about living in America and at first complained that our apartment was not good enough. But before long they changed their mind and were very reluctant to leave. We usually provided for and house the new refugee families for around six weeks, at which time we expected htem to be fully employed and sufficient assimiliated to proceed in another rental apartment on their own.
During the next six years, we resettled from Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, a number of Moslem and mixed Catholic-Orthodox couples who were not accepted by the major ethnic groups in those countries. One Bosnian and one Russian family that were in different apartments in our Hospitality House at first were very wary of each other and kept door between the apartments locked,. But they soon found each other to be warm humans instead of monsters, and became good friends. One time when the Russian grandfather and a member of our committee were helping the Bosnian family plant some grape shoots in the back yard, the Bosnian wife said with tears in her eyes that she never expected to see the day when members of the two major powers in the world, the United States and Russia, would be stooping to help a poor Bosnian woman.
In 2002, the Virginia Council of Churches gave our church a citation for having sponsored the most refugees of any church in the state. Also they recognized Naomi West as the person who had been the most active advocate for refugee resettlement in the Valley. Lowell Heisey represented the Shenandoah District and Church of the Brethren for several years as a member of the Virginia Council of Churches Refugee Resettlement Advisory Council.
As it is rather expensive and time-consuming to resettle a family, we found it expedient to lease one of our Hospitality House apartments to other churches for refugee resettlement Thus in this way we aided nine other local churches in their refugee resettlement activities during the past ten years. Through this leasing arrangement, we have able to help resettle fifteen additional refugee families composed of thirty adults and twenty-five children, from eight different countries.