Love, Support and Compassion

The Seeds of Help for Midstate Syrian Refugees

Ten families.

The number sounds so tiny, yet each family has needs that many of us will never experience.

After fleeing Syria, they needed a place to plant new roots. When they were resettled in the midstate, they came with few belongings but had optimistic spirits buoyed by immeasurable hope.

A dedicated group of Central Pennsylvania volunteers are day after day giving out friendship, support and a helping hand to these families. Together, theirs is a powerful story that transcends race, religion and culture.

Watering the Seeds of Hope

Helping refugees comes naturally to Vivian Blanc. Seventeen years ago, she was instrumental in organizing a grassroots group of volunteers in support of the Lost Boys of Sudan.

“That experience…it was unique and exceptional,” she explains. “[And] the South Sudanese community is well-established now.”

Blanc and the Jewish Federation’s Director of Development, Oren Yagil, chair a Jewish Family Services board committee whose mission is to find community collaboration opportunities that serve underprivileged populations. In February 2017, a group of first-year medical students from Hershey contacted Yagil.  The medical students, through their own project with Syrian refugees, recognized larger and broader needs of the families.  Blanc and Yagil met with the medical students to discuss ways in which they could help.

Resettlement agencies in the United States provide a modest, one-time allotment of money to refugees along with general support for 90 days. Catholic Charities acts as the resettlement agency for refugees in the Greater Harrisburg area. Despite the many efforts of Catholic Charities’ case workers and employees, not all of the needs of refugee families can be met within the first 90 days of their arrival to the U.S.

Armed with a personal passion and certification as a refugee mental-health specialist, Blanc realized that she could affect positive change in this unique population torn by trauma.

Yagil agreed. “We decided to step in and provide cooperation with, while getting guidance from, Catholic Charities. We don’t want to duplicate efforts. It’s fantastic that Catholic Charities was willing to work with us.”

Now, they were poised to become a bridge toward 10 families’ autonomy.

The trouble was that they had to collect a team of volunteers in a few days to avoid leaving the 10 families without support.

(l-r): Vivian Blanc, Emily Dunkleberger and Oren Yagil

Interfaith, Inter-caring
In February 2017, Blanc and Yagil brought together about 70 people driven toward service and representing all faiths and all parts of the community. It was a kickoff meeting of epic proportions, and 30 participants signed up on the spot, including Emily and Jonathan Dunkleberger.

“Jonathan and I had talked about our hope to do something,” says Emily. “After the first meeting…we [became] captains for a Syrian family.”

Captains lead a team of volunteers totally dedicated to the needs of one family. Rather than shouldering the burdens themselves, the captains – and the Syrian families they serve – have others who can help families run errands, make wise decisions, navigate transportation and get to medical appointments.

Yagil is continuously amazed by how this effort has become a mission for more than 120 volunteers, operating under the care of the captains.

“These guys are amazing!” he says. “They will turn mountains over for the families.”

As the first points of contact, captains provide consistency to the Syrian families and avoid overwhelming them. It’s a structure that Emily and Jonathan say works well.

That doesn’t mean it’s been simple.

The first barrier was language. The young couple found a quick way around the problem: Google translate.

“We don’t speak Arabic,” admits Emily. “But we wanted to let them know we have a team who wanted to welcome them to Harrisburg.”

After just a few weeks, the system is working, per Jonathan. It’s also opening volunteers’ eyes to how important the “little things” are.

“It was really nice to have the father of [our] family reach out to me. He needed to open a bank account. We took his paycheck to PNC Bank. I was the interpreter with the Google app,” Jonathan says.

The Dunklebergers’ assigned Syrian family has five children, one of whom has autism. After leaving Syria in 2012, the family stayed in Jordan for four years before reaching the United States. Now, each of their children is getting support.

“These people have had to leave their homes and friends and family members,” notes Emily. “They’ve lost their support system. We’re striving to have a personal relationship with them and get to the point where we can be their friends.”

Breaking Down Barriers
Language and culture might not be the biggest barriers to assimilating the Syrian refugee population into the day-to-day rhythm of the Harrisburg area.

“It’s easy to make judgments about people you’ve never met…and maybe not think that they should be here,” admits Jonathan. “Really, these are people like you and me. They are families trying to escape bad situations. They just want to have normal lives.”

To illustrate his point, Jonathan talks about an impromptu discussion he had with the father of his Syrian family. Out of the blue, they began to chat about hobbies and discovered they both liked motorcycles. This moment cemented Jonathan’s realization that people all over the world are the same.

Adds Emily, “They’re humans. They have dreams. They want a safe place to raise their families. They want to learn English, be independent, succeed and be self-sufficient. They’re facing a lot of challenges.  …What we want most is to give them a leg up.”

Although Blanc sees a lot of fear toward the Syrian refugees, she hopes society can move past those initial negative reactions.

“These people were caught in bad situations,” she says of the Syrian families. “If we can show them the opposite of hate, which is help, they can thrive.”

Inroads to Independence

The path to independence for the Syrian refugee families may be rocky, but with the help of Blanc, Yagil, the Dunklebergers and a multitude of others, it’s happening. They are getting jobs and learning English. Their kids are integrating into our school system, and they are slowly acclimating to their new surroundings.

“We’re careful not to build dependencies,” explains Yagil. “The Syrian refugees need to stand on their own.”

The experience of grassroots helping has changed everyone for the better, bringing bright moments to the forefront. After a recent clothing drive, Emily and Jonathan presented their family’s 7-year-old boy with a new-to-him pair of shoes. His reaction? He put them on, and his face lit up. Emily asked him, “Good?” With glee, he stood up and put his arms in the air, exclaiming, “Good! Good!”

Good it is, for the hearts of everyone involved.

Motivated to help the Syrian refugee families in Central Pennsylvania? Monetary donations are being collected through the Jewish Family Service website ( to stabilize the families and help them become self-sufficient. Monies are used to provide classes, trainings and opportunities to improve marketability. Prefer to pay with a personal check? Send it to JFS, 3333 North Front Street, Harrisburg, PA 17110, with “Syrian refugees” in the memo line.