It’s a melancholy morning.
The mist is heavy enough to make the long drive feel foreign.
And in many ways, it is. We’re in Strasburg, the heart of Amish Country. We’re about to step inside an Amish kitchen, learn how to make traditional Pa. Dutch-style chicken pot pie, and later we’ll be sharing a table with both the Amish and refugees from Syria, Iraq, Congo, Burma, Somalia, Nepal and Kenya.
Needless to say, this is not your typical Saturday brunch.
As my photographer and I cut through the fog in his Ford Fiesta, we slip into a time warp. We step out and are met by a black Lab and Chow Chow mix guard dog. She’s a pup — and a talkative one at that.
She follows, yapping alongside us as we make our way toward the front door of a renovated farmhouse.
As the door opens, two more pups storm out. A middle-aged woman introduces herself as Martha Beiler. She and her husband own the farm. They’re hosting a multicultural luncheon later in the afternoon in partnership with loKal, a Lancaster-based tour guide company, and Experience Bridge, an at-home dinner experience with refugee families.
The Beilers will open their home to 70 strangers, including several refugees, to share stories, food and welcome one another as neighbors.
Martha is preparing chicken pot pie for the dinner. She’s not ready for us yet and tells us we can explore the farm, find her husband, and speak with him.
She’s politely dismissive.
And so, we set out to meet her husband, Ivan.
He’s a mason by trade and a preacher in his family’s Amish district. He has a large, gray Amish beard, and straw hat with pair of sunglasses resting over top.
Ivan explains to us that this is the first dinner they’ve hosted with refugees. He estimates his family has welcomed strangers into their home nearly a dozen times since the summer began. That’s excluding the “Witness” tours he partners with loKal Experience for.
The farm is the same one from the 1985 movie “Witness,” starring Harrison Ford, one of the highest-grossing films of that year.
Ivan slows the conversation to a murmur and invites us to explore the farm on our own as we wait for his wife.
Inside an Amish kitchen
We make our way back toward his family’s farmhouse. A clothesline wraps around the U-shaped porch, his children are busy taking turns hanging up clothes. As we enter the house, we familiarize ourselves with the alien creak of an air-powered washer.
Inside the Beiler’s kitchen is Martha. Her apron and forearms are covered in all-purpose flour. A soup pot simmers behind her as she begins rolling out the pastry dough.
She’s preparing chicken pot pie.
“I asked him [Ivan] what he wanted me to cook, he said chicken pot pie, so here we are,” she said.
The kitchen is quaint. The entire home is. The wooden table and countertops are hand-made, and a gas mantle hovers over a dozen coffee-flavored whoopie pies.
But Martha’s focus is on the dough. The whoopies can wait.
As she begins rolling out the dough, an older Amish woman walks in. She gives us a brief smile as she darts past. She marches straight up to Martha and begins speaking Pennsylvania Dutch.
The silver-haired woman is Emma, a neighbor — approximately three or four miles away, by Emma’s estimate.
They both live in the same district, which is a group of Amish families, often 20 to 25, living in close proximity to one another, Emma tells us. They often break up when they grow close to 50 families, Martha explains.
Emma’s presence seems to relax Martha. The two are comfortable working together. There’s a harmony between Emma’s chopping and the rattle of Martha’s pastry wheel as she cuts each piece of dough.
“I’ve never made pot pie for this many people before,” she said. “I’ve done it quite often for our family.”
The Beilers are expecting dozens for the luncheon, and Martha wants to make sure each guest has at least a cup and a half of pot pie.
The recipe is familiar to any central Pennsylvania native. There’s no crust, just a stew with chicken broth, bits of chicken, mir poux and, of course, fluffy chunks of pastry dough floating throughout the mixture.
I ask her, if this is pot pie, what does she call pot pie with a crust?
“Oh, that’s chicken pie,” she said.
As she slices the dough, one of the pups makes its way back into the kitchen. Before her youngest son retrieves it, she tells us only the talkative black Lab mix is her and Ivan’s. She’s dog-sitting for her son, James, who is at Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Delaware with their 9-month-old grandson. The little one has a hole in his heart and requires surgery.
She’s candid with her tone. Her voice doesn’t waiver or search for sympathy — it simply, is what it is.
She sends her daughter out to grab potatoes from their cellar. A few moments later, she returns, a dozen fist-sized potatoes with a few eyes in tow. She hands them off to Emma, who begins washing, peeling and cutting them.
There’s a method to the pair’s cooking and mannerisms — somewhat mechanical. They don’t usually have a camera in their kitchen, yet they do not want to be impolite to their visitors either.
Some could mistake the rigidness as rude, but it is not. Rather, it’s a battle between that unwavering approach to the task at hand with a foreign presence in their home. It makes Martha uneasy. The tension evaporates each time Emma and Martha speak in their native tongues.
Later in the day, Martha tells me, “I don’t like being the center of attention. I like people, I like serving, I’m just camera shy.”
Alongside the kitchen is a decorative window panel. A petrified white rose sits in the middle of it, a gift from their son’s wedding. Underneath is a chalkboard with a handwritten quote: “We may not have it all together … but together we have it all.”
Ivan grew up just a half-mile behind their current farm. Martha grew up 12 miles north. The pair married in ‘88 and now have nine children, including seven grandchildren. A commemorative board in their living room highlights each defining moment in their family: new siblings and new marriages.
Above their living room cabinet, hanging from the ledge, is a Settlers of Catan board game — another common item, like Ivan’s sunglasses, that only seems out of place in the hands of an Amish family.
Ivan steps into the kitchen and double-checks with Martha if everything is coming along. He tells her he’s almost finished preparing the dining room on the second floor of the barn for guests. He shares the same pragmatic demeanor as his wife. There are tasks to be done, and there’s marginal time for chit chat.
But when asked if he and his family enjoy hosting these events, he stops. A wide grin peeks out from behind his beard.
“Bringing people together has been a good experience, meeting new people and showing them our home,” he said.
Inside the barn where ‘Witness’ was filmed
Touring the 83-acre farm, you’ll find remnants from the ‘85 film. The Beilers operated a dairy farm, but they cut their losses about 10 years ago, Ivan said. Now, the desolate stalls live in purgatory — shells of a Hollywood set and a once-productive source of income for an Amish family.
The dinners, as welcome an experience as they’ve become for Ivan and his family, serve a dual purpose as an additional source of income.
Inside, adjacent to the abandoned dairy stalls, sits a silo. Yes, the same silo where Harrison Ford had corn dumped on top of him. It is rusted, empty and forgotten now.
A half-dozen horses sit on the opposite end of the building. An Amish buggy parked outside their pens. The broncos are friendly, bobbing their heads toward my writing hand searching for a nurturing touch on the bridge of their noses.
As cars begin to pull into the Beiler’s driveway, the horses dash toward the window, searching for the source of the commotion.
The vehicles carry incoming guests, each eager to find their seat at the Amish table.
Breaking bread, as neighbors
“It is a chance to meet new members of the community,” Lancaster resident Brendan O’Donnell said. He has the look of a hipster. Well dressed, with a beard that could be mistaken for Amish.
He’s accompanied by a few friends. He tells me about how diverse his neighborhood is. How he and and his friends discussed the possibility of hosting an event that brings immigrants, his neighbors, together for a chance to share their stories and culture through food.
The discussion led to the discovery of this Amish and Refugee Meal Experience.
“We’re all originally immigrants, and there has to be time to cross-pollinate,” Phil Lapp, brand ambassador for loKal Experience, said.
Lapp, who was raised in an Amish and later Mennonite community, met Ivan Beiler when he was a boy. It was a few decades later that he revisited the Beilers, asking them if he could bring a curated tour to their property, highlighting the farm and set for “Witness.” The tours turned into an Amish dinner series form loKal in partnership with AirBnB experiences.
“Growing up here, I didn’t think we were doing a great job acclimating ourselves to the city,” Lapp said. “Our vision was to have these stories told.”
As the series grew, Lapp became aware of a similar group in Bridge. Founded by Somalian refugee, Mustafu Nuur. Nuur launched Bridge two years ago and has already hosted over 2,300 events.
The idea for Bridge came about after a conversation Nuur had with an abrasive Lancaster native who wasn’t entirely open to the idea of immigrant inclusion in their neighborhood.
The pair shared a coffee, conversation, and in the end, they discovered a shared middle ground – the two were neighbors, they should act as such regardless of the roadways traveled that brought them each to Lancaster.
“It sparked my idea to bring people together,” Nuur said. “We live in a very diverse community, but we don’t know or talk to each other.”
The concept of Bridge is simple: Refugee families in Lancaster open their doors up, cook a meal and share their stories with guests. The experience is as the name suggests: a bridge between cultures.
On Saturday, Dec. 14 the Beilers hosted a dinner with families from Somali, Congo, Syria, Burma, Iraq, Kenya and Nepal.
The families from each shared their stories, including 22-year-old Ahman Khilo, who fled his native Syria in 2012. His family sought refuge with the International Organization for Migration in Turkey. However, the experience was barely more tolerable than living in his native, war-torn homeland.
“They were taking advantage of us [in Turkey] because we were refugees,” Khilo said.
Khilo, who speaks with a maturity in his voice that doesn’t match his age, acknowledged that President Trump hasn’t been kind to refugees. The misinformation regarding the immigration system is often due to a lack of understanding from the vantage point of a refugee, he said.
When crossing into Turkey, Khilo said his family had two major obstacles to overcome as they sought refuge: Avoid corrupt officials who took bribes and illegally detained or broke families apart, and the ever-present danger of being shot and killed as they approached the border. Their bodies would likely be dumped back on the Syrian border, he said.
It’s a reality I know nothing about and one that Khilo and other members of Bridge speak about with a level of candor that is difficult to digest at first, but nonetheless powerful.
“We left because of the government,” said Mukan Htoo, a Burman refugee who fled to Nepal with his family and later relocated to Lancaster in 2013. “My parents wanted me to have the chance for a better life.”
Htoo, who studies art at Millersville University, often apologizes for his broken English. His nervousness comes from a good place, he doesn’t want to disrespect his adopted nation, nor does he want to be labeled as ignorant for not knowing the language better. He and his family have hosted several events since he met Nuur. It’s an experience he relishes.
“It is great me for me to share my culture and learn other people’s culture,” he said.
In the middle of the dining room, a variety of dishes from each family sits between the 70 guests. A batch of barriis, Somalian rice and Kardomah sits next to Kenyan-spiced chicken, Iraqi grape leaves and Sfiha and at the very end of the table, Martha’s chicken pot pie.
As the luncheon begins, a toddler begins to cry. The mother, embarrassed, picks up her child and makes her way for the door. She’s stopped by Martha, who begins to play peekaboo with the toddler. Her motherly instincts seem to put both the toddler and the mother at ease.
It is a common situation that symbolizes what the luncheon aims to prove: At the end of the day, we’re all just people.
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