Lawncrest: Refugee Program Helps Facilitate Demographic Changes in the Northeast

Not a day goes by that Helen Tobin isn’t moved by the work she does.

The Philadelphia-native has spent the past seven years working with and assisting refugees and immigrants from different parts of the world as part of the Welcome Home program, ran by the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in the Lawncrest section of Philadelphia.

The church had a parsonage nearby with four bedrooms and two and a half bathrooms that wasn’t being used. Tobin, along with Prince of Peace, partnered with Lutheran Children and Family Service and took in Welcome Home’s first family.

Lutheran Children and Family Service is a nonprofit social service agency that provides services to a diverse clientele throughout southeastern Pennsylvania.

“Our first family was from Eritrea but their camp was in Ethiopia,” Tobin said. “They were there for quite a while and they moved on to their own homes.”

From there, Tobin and Welcome Home took in a family from Nepal. Tobin has grown fond of the family and routinely drives them to Prince of Peace every Monday for their English as a Second Language (ESL) class.

Prince of Peace holds the ESL class on Mondays and it is open to all. There are usually about 15-20 students in the class. Welcome Home started sponsoring its first family in the program when the Akari family from Nepal arrived.

The Akari family from Nepal seen here as they arrived for their weekly ESL class at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church.
The Akari family from Nepal seen here as they arrived for their weekly ESL class at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church.

“Helen has a very close connection with them,” Head ESL teacher Michael Duris said. “They probably come the most. They really probably have benefited the most [from the class]. A lot of other students have come and gone, we’ve had about 30 or 40 different students over the last year and a half.”

The experience in teaching English to immigrants and refugees has come along with challenges.

“It’s very different,” Duris said. “Some of the immigrants said they didn’t even know how to write in their own language when they came here. Like they couldn’t read a street sign or go shopping or anything.”

“Some of them come regularly to worship here at Prince of Peace, but they’re mostly Hindu so it’s a very different background on top of that from a religious standpoint.”

Philadelphia as a whole has gone through significant changes in its demographics spanning the last 25 years. No section has experienced that change quite like the Northeast, and more specifically the lower Northeast.

Northeast Philadelphia had a white non-hispanic population of 377,169 (92.0%) in 1990, according to data from the United States Census. In the 2010 Census, that number dropped to 58.3%. The African-American population grew from 3.4% in 1990 to 18% in 2010. Also seeing a significant growth was the Hispanic population, which grew from 2.3% to 13.9% in those 20 years.

“I was raised if you cut your hand, you bleed red blood,” Tobin said of the racial changes. “No matter what color you are, you bleed red blood. What difference does it make? As long as you’re good people, you help one another, isn’t that what it should be?”

“I don’t understand the ‘oh, they’re not like us.’ Put a bag over everybody’s head and get to know one another. Then judge.”

Welcome Home has served more than 15 families, 55 people from seven different countries since its inception. In December of 2013, Welcome Home partnered the Nationalities Service Center in hopes of reducing the amount of time spent that the parsonage is empty.

The program, which is funded through donations and grants, hopes to expand to a small apartment complex in the next three to five years.

“We would love to, but it’s financial,” Tobin said of expanding. “We could definitely do a lot more.”

“We go out and talk, and cry and plead. People have been good. Other churches and organizations have donated financially. I had sent a plea out for blankets and bedding… it all comes through.”

– Text, video and images by Jeff Neiburg.

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