In January, Lancaster was deemed America’s refugee capital by BBC News. While the acceptance of refugees in Lancaster seemed commonplace, the recognition was unexpected and startling to many.
Many locations in Lancaster city took refugee matters into their own hands after the travel ban enacted by President Donald Trump, ensuring that refugees felt safe, protected and welcomed.
This effort took many forms.
Tellus360, a bar in downtown Lancaster, was among the first to take action. The venue held a benefit concert for refugees which raised $28,000, according to LancasterOnline.
Millersville adjunct professor Matt Johnson holds an interest in the rights of people, namely refugees. It’s this love of people that is fueling his campaign for Lancaster City Council.
Drawing inspiration from the refugee efforts in Lancaster, as well as his 13-year-old stepson’s interest in Nobel Prize-winning Malala Yousafzai, Johnson made an attempt to bring Yousafzai to the proclaimed refugee capital of America.
Pakistani-born Yousafzai garnered international attention after becoming an education activist during the heightened threats of the Taliban, which put many schools in danger of being shut down. She chronicled her experiences as a student in Pakistan while writing for the Urdu BBC under a pseudonym.
Yousafzai and her father Ziauddin then created a fund to bring awareness to girls in education, and bring their voices to the forefront of the situation.
In 2014, she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with education, donating her entire award stipend of over $500,000 to build a secondary school for girls in Pakistan. She and her father now tour around the world to promote education and acceptance.
Johnson said he figured it would be worth a shot to bring her to Lancaster. “I knew it was going to be a Hail Mary,” Johnson said.
He heard back two days after he sent the letter, but he said that the response read more like a form letter than something personalized. During the March snowstorm someone from Yousafzai’s personal team reached out to Johnson, saying that there was an interest in bringing her to Lancaster.
The Malala Fund’s Director of Special Projects Eason Jordan then came from New York to tour Lancaster city with Johnson. They went to Church World Services, Lancaster Central Market, McCaskey High School and several other places around the city.
When Johnson got the confirmation that Yousafzai was coming to Lancaster, he had to keep it secret due to security clearances. He was told that he could tell no more than ten people, which made coordinating events difficult.
“Basically, we then had to essentially invent events for her to be at, as we knew we couldn’t announce her,” Johnson said. Church World Services usually hosts a volunteer appreciation day, so Johnson and Yousafzai’s team coordinated around that. McCaskey held a special assembly.
“There were some people I know who were really close to the issue … so it was really tough,” Johnson said.
When Yousafzai arrived in Lancaster, she was met with praise and adoration. She visited the Lancaster Central Market, the Himalayan Curry and Grill and Church World Services. People from all walks of life listened to her speak at the public events.
“It’s a red county with a very dark blue center … you can be republican or be in a red place, and still understand the value in helping the worst-off people,” Johnson said.
Her presence will be remembered for years to come; each person had a different experience while being around her. Johnson’s stepson, for instance, took this as a call to action. Johnson said that by the end of the week, his stepson was texting him about raising money for schools in Pakistan and about the status of Syria.
While many may be thinking about how Malala’s visit will affect the people of Lancaster, Johnson encourages people to think about how this experience impacted her.
“Her people were teary-eyed … they were just amazed about the existence of Lancaster,” Johnson said. “It was a really powerful thing … you forget she’s 19. This was unlike anything she had encountered before. I think that’s something Lancaster needs to know about.”
Johnson said she came on a fact-finding mission, and that she still had a lot of life to live. “She’ll forever take Lancaster in her heart.”