How one small Vir­ginia town got im­mi­gra­tion and refugee re­set­tle­ment right — and is bet­ter off for it.

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - AN­DREW D. PERRINE HAR­RISON­BURG, VA.

Who would guess that a city tucked in the Shenan­doah Val­ley of western Vir­ginia, with a pop­u­la­tion of 53,000 and a hard-work­ing ru­ral his­tory, is a model of in­ter­na­tional co­ex­is­tence? Yet, only 55 per­cent of the stu­dents at­tend­ing Har­rison­burg City Pub­lic Schools were born in the United States. The sec­ond-largest seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion by coun­try of ori­gin is Iraqi. Then there are the Hon­durans, Puerto Ri­cans, Sal­vado­rans and Mex­i­cans. The Con­golese, Ethiopi­ans, Jor­da­ni­ans, Ukraini­ans and Syr­i­ans are rep­resentd, too. As of Jan­uary 2016, Har­rison­burg City Pub­lic Schools are at­tended by stu­dents from 46 coun­tries.

One might guess that so many peo­ple from so many places around the world never could get along in such a small town given the un­nerv­ing level of so­cial dis­cord rep­re­sented in the me­dia re­gard­ing im­mi­gra­tion and the fear of ter­ror­ism. Yet they do. Crime is mostly petty. Only four po­lice of­fi­cers have died in the line of duty since the first in 1959. What on earth is hap­pen­ing in Har­rison­burg? Known since the 1930s as “The Friendly City,” Har­rison­burg is an of­fi­cial Church World Ser­vice refugee re­set­tle­ment com­mu­nity. It’s home to James Madi­son University and East­ern Men­non­ite University, which brings a lot of for­eign na­tion­als to town through its mis­sion­ary work around the world. And the city lies in the path of In­ter­state 81. So, even though Har­rison­burg is no bustling port city or cos­mopoli­tan me­trop­o­lis, its high level of di­ver­sity is not so hard to be­lieve.

But what is so hard to be­lieve is the level of con­cord among all the var­i­ous walks of life. Lis­ten­ing to the cur­rent Amer­i­can na­tional di­a­logue, or ob­serv­ing the rise of na­tion­al­ist po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates around the world, one would as­sume that mix­ing na­tion­al­i­ties, re­li­gions and eth­nic groups in such close quar­ters would pro­duce enough emo­tional tinder to fuel a blaze of an­gry di­vi­sions and open fight­ing in the streets. Yet it does not.

In fact, less than a week af­ter the White House is­sued an ex­ec­u­tive or­der ban­ning refugees from seven ma­jor­ity-Mus­lim coun­tries, 30 vol­un­teers from churches of var­i­ous faiths in Har­rison­burg and the sur­round­ing Rock­ing­ham County col­lected food do­nated to the Is­lamic Cen­ter of the Shenan­doah Val­ley. Ac­cord­ing to the Daily News-Record, the food was set out af­ter the Is­lamic Cen­ter’s 1 p.m. ser­vice, and 300 at­ten­dees grabbed lunch to go or sat down to a meal. One at­tendee re­port­edly said, “This sup­port shows us the com­mu­nity is stand­ing with us. This makes us feel like we are all Amer­i­cans.”

Maybe ev­ery­one gets along well in Har­rison­burg be­cause the town is small and the com­mu­nity ac­tively in­ter­acts. It is a lot eas­ier to think badly of some group — or even hate them — if its mem­bers are an ab­strac­tion to you. If you don’t know or see the peo­ple you’re told to fear, it’s much eas­ier to fear them. In Har­rison­burg, we plainly see that our Mex­i­can and Mus­lim neigh­bors are not as they are por­trayed by some in elected of­fice or in the me­dia.

Maybe the an­swer is not a wall or a mora­to­rium on im­mi­gra­tion. Maybe the an­swer is ex­actly the op­po­site. Just ask the good peo­ple in the Friendly City of Har­rison­burg.

In Har­rison­burg, we plainly see that our Mex­i­can and Mus­lim neigh­bors are not as they are por­trayed by some in elected of­fice or in the me­dia.

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