Real people telling real stories.

That was the message of the Refugee and Immigration Conference at Central Penn College on Saturday. If you’re sick of heated political debates on this topic, Chief Diversity Officer Romeo Azondekon says this is the right place for you.

“There is a shock factor to it all,” Azondekon said. “Because oftentimes we’re not hearing those stories, and that’s what this is for.”

The event included speakers sharing their stories about how they came to the United States, and specifically to Central Pennsylvania. They talked about the roles they play in their communities, and what shaped their ideas of the American Dream.

Azondekon’s job was to make sure the conference ran smoothly. But his feelings about refugees and immigrants go beyond his employment.

“I’m from West Africa,” Azondekon said. “I’m a refugee myself. I came here at the age of five.”

Many more refugees have since arrived in the Midstate. Data from Pennsylvania Refugee Resettlement Program shows from October 2011 through September 2016, approximately 5,411 refugees arrived in Central Pennsylvania. Most went to Harrisburg and Lancaster because of affordable housing and employment opportunities.

“Going through the process of applying for a green card, going through the process of citizenship, becoming an American citizen,” Azondekon said. “I’ve been an American citizen since I was 14 years old, but certainly I remember those things.”

Azondekon says he often hears people speaking about refugees in generalities, without being familiar with real stories. He hopes the Refugee and Immigration Conference is one of many ways the public can put faces to an issue.

“Stories of people in impoverished countries and communities, not having food, not having shelter,” Azondekon said. “The refugee story of displacement, of going from place to place and not knowing exactly where home is.”

Azondekon says even though Central Pennsylvania is rural, it’s also diverse. He sees that as an opportunity to bring people together.

“We as a community are willing to learn,” Azondekon said. “I do see that. I do see that we are kind of willing to engage in these kinds of forums and these kinds of conferences to really open up the doors for conversation.”

For more details on how refugees are resettled in Pennsylvania, click here.