Close-Knit Relationships: A Former Refugee Serves New Friends from Afghanistan

May 5, 2022

Friedlinde Ebersole has been knitting for the Lancaster Church of the Brethren’s (LCOB) prayer shawl ministry for more than a decade. She estimates she has made about 100 shawls so far, each taking her six or seven hours to create. As she knits, she offers prayers for the eventual recipient of each shawl, without knowing what their circumstances will be. Often the shawls go to someone who has experienced illness or loss, and they represent the care and concern not only of Friedlinde, but of the entire church.

The most recent recipients of Friedlinde’s shawls had experienced a different kind of loss—loss of their homes and homeland and separation from extended family. On Sunday, April 3, just as Ramadan, the Muslim season of prayer and fasting, was beginning, LCOB’s refugee Welcome Team presented prayer shawls to seven new friends from Afghanistan who the church has been supporting in partnership with Church World Service (CWS) since early January. Call it Afghans for Afghans, if you will. Or not.

When the Lancaster congregation decided to renew its involvement in refugee resettlement through CWS last fall, 79-year-old Friedlinde signed up to join the Welcome Team. She felt others on the team had more expertise to offer, but she had one unique quality: She was a former refugee.

“I guess it’s just understanding what they are going through,” she reflects, “and feeling like I could be a little help.”

Friedlinde’s family was the first to be settled by the Lancaster congregation when she arrived with her parents and brother in June 1956. Eventually four congregations (including Lititz and Conestoga COBs) would assist 21 members of her extended Kratz/Spahr/Lukhaup/Bender family to begin new lives in Lancaster County.

Friedlinde’s family was part of the Volksdeutsche, ethnic Germans living in what then was Yugoslavia. When World War Two began, her father was forced to join either the German or Hungarian army. He joined the German army and was wounded at the Russian front. Due to their German heritage the rest of the family was confined in an internment camp and forced by the communist government of Yugoslavia to work on state-owned farms.

After a few years of internment, the women and children escaped the camp under cover of darkness in 1947, fled to Hungary, and boarded a crowded train to Austria, where five-year-old Friedlinde and her family began life as refugees in the partitioned city of Linz. Her father decided they would have more opportunity in the US and the family eventually was able to emigrate.

LCOB settled many refugee families after Friedlinde’s family but had not done so for a decade or more. John “Hank” Herr wanted to change that, so in honor of his late wife, in June 2021 he donated $50,000 to the church to establish the Theresa J. Herr Endowment for Refugee Resettlement (HERR). Hank’s generosity provided a nudge and the congregation joined hands with CWS to form an 11-member Welcome Team, chaired by Hank’s daughter, Kathryn Riegen.

The team completed online training from CWS in December 2021 and waited patiently for a call. It came on January 4: In two days would the team be ready to receive a family of five that had been in a military camp in Virginia since August? The honest answer was, “Not sure,” but the team said yes and welcomed father Satar, mother Samia, and three young children on January 6.

A month or so later Samia’s brother Habib and nephew Miraj arrived and LCOB welcomed them, as well. (Other local groups are assisting three more of Samia’s siblings and their families.)

Since January, the LCOB team and others from the church have invested well over 1,000 hours of time and the church and individual members of the church have donated cash and items valued at about $18,000 so far to provide for initial needs, furnish two apartments, and obtain two used vehicles. (The vehicles were purchased from another former refugee that the congregation assisted some years ago. They came with a generous refugee-to-refugee discount and a wonderful teatime with delicious Turkish foods.)

In addition to making the prayer shawls, Friedlinde was happy to help line up home furnishings and clean Satar & Samia’s apartment before they moved in.

But perhaps her greatest contribution has been empathy. She thinks it’s more complicated for refugees coming to the US today than it was for her family and she respects their resiliency. “I so much admire them,” she says. “Our family didn’t know what we would face when we got here and I’m sure they are going through the same thing.” 

When she heard bits and pieces of their story of a desperate and dangerous trip to the Kabul airport last August, she was reminded of her experience as a little girl crowding onto a train in Hungary.  

When she sees Samia’s concern for 31 additional family members who languish in a refugee center in Abu Dhabi and five more in Turkey, she hurts with them and remembers how important it was for her extended family to be together. The LCOB welcome team has been advocating with government representatives and agencies to reunite the rest of Samia’s family in the US.

And when she sees Sedra—Satar and Samia’s bright seven-year-old daughter—soaking up new things like a sponge, she is grateful that Sedra is now in a country where girls can go to school and remembers how her own father wanted her to have greater educational opportunities. Friedlinde eventually enjoyed a career as a high school German teacher.

“I look forward to seeing what Sedra will grow up to be,” says Friedlinde. “I hope I’ll be around for it.”

In just three short months Friedlinde and the rest of the Welcome Team have formed close-knit relationships with their new friends.

“Even once they are established and won’t need us as much,” she says, “I think we’ll continue to have contact with them.”

That’s what happened with her family years ago, although things probably won’t work out exactly the same way this time around. Back in 1956, LCOB member Anna Ebersole headed up the team that assisted Friedlinde’s family. Anna and Harold’s son, David, took a shine to Friedlinde and they eventually married and raised three sons.

“David’s mother always said the best job she did for the church was to head the refugee committee,” says Friedlinde. Not only because the work was rewarding but because she got a wonderful daughter-in-law out of the deal.


This blog was written by Don Fitzkee.

Co-sponsor is the Lancaster Church of the Brethren.