How one small Virginia town embraces immigration - and is better off for it

Alice Graves of Harrisonburg, Va., holds an "Our Voice Matters" sign while
marching on Martin Luther King Day in the annual People's Day across in
Harrisonburg, Va. (Nikki Fox/Daily News-Record via Associated Press)

By Andrew D. Perrine  February 10 at 5:00 PM

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?

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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
< >
< > 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
< > 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.



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