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