Halfway across the world, refugees reunite in York

Sean Philip Cotter, 505-5437/@SPCotterYD
  • The rest of the family of refugees who moved to York County last month have joined their relatives here.

The last time she saw them was in the Tanzanian refugee camp where many spent their whole lives.

Congolese refugee Elizabeth Abeca, back, hugs her mother, Anyesi Chala, upon her arrival at the Lancaster Airport in Lititz, Monday, July 25, 2016. Abeca, 24, arrived on June 29 with her 2-year-old daughter, Mlasi Tipa, and has been waiting for her parents and siblings to arrive from the refugee camp in Tanzania where they have lived for nearly 20 years. Stony Brook Mennonite Church has gathered resources for the family and will help ease their integration process. Dawn J. Sagert photo

But on Monday, Elizabeth Abeca, who moved to the United States last month after living the past two decades in a Tanzanian refugee camp, was reunited with eight members of her family when she met them at Lancaster Airport.

Congolese refugees, from left, Anyesi Chala, Ramadhani Pierre, 9, and Mbeleci Mmassa, 15, give some attention to Mlasi Tipa, 2, after arriving at the Lancaster Airport in Lititz, Monday, July 25, 2016. Mlasi has been in York County with her mother, Elizabeth Abecca, 24, since June 29, where the two have been waiting for the rest of Abecca's family to arrive from the refugee camp in Tanzania where they have lived for nearly 20 years. Stony Brook Mennonite Church is helping the family integrate into American society. Dawn J. Sagert photo

And now, they all live in Spring Garden Township.

Abeca, 24, arrived June 29 with her 2-year-old daughter, Mlasi. She had been staying on a farm with a Seven Valleys-area family, but when her mother and father and six siblings arrived Monday, they all moved into a new home in the Central York School District, according to Christine Baer, who works for Church World Services, the organization that settled the refugees.

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"I believe they're doing well," Baer said.

Abeca and her family had been in the Nyaragusu refugee camp for the past 19 years, ever since they fled violence in their home country of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which then was called Zaire. That's a common amount of time for refugees to spend in camps. All of the refugees went through U.S. State Department background checks before they came to America.

Abeca knew almost no English when she landed, Baer said, but the Congolese woman has been taking English classes.

"Her English was starting to come along," volunteer Joan Maruskin said of her last meeting with Abeca.

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One of Church World Services' main goals, Baer said, is working through the process in a way that empowers the refugees. The goal is for them to be able to handle their own affairs in a relatively short amount of time.

Eventually, the refugees will take cultural orientation classes to help settle into American life. There's going to be a wide variety of differences, Baer said, from the obvious ones such as language to others that aren't apparent at face value, such as the importance Americans put on keeping track of time.

The organization will settle two more refugee families in the next few months, said Maruskin, who added that it seemed like Abeca was happy with the changes.

Congolese refugee Elizabeth Abeca, 24, looks at her daughter, Mlasi Tipa, 2, as they wait for her family to arrive at the Lancaster Airport in Lititz, Monday, July 25, 2016. The pair arrived in Pennsylvania on June 29 after spending nearly 20 years in a refugee camp in Tanzania with her parents and siblings. Church World Services and Stony Brook Mennonite Church are helping the family settle in the area. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"I visited with her when she was on the farm; she was doing very nicely," Maruskin said. "She was adjusting to being in the United States."

She said Abeca had been able to communicate to her host Kim Albert what foods they wanted to eat, and then they cooked them together.

"They were sharing lots of cooking skills from the different countries," Maruskin said.

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Maruskin said Mlasi, the 2-year-old, seemed shy and nervous at first, but then she warmed up.

"Little kids always end up smiling and being happy," she said.

— Reach Sean Cotter atscotter@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at@SPCotterYD.