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October 07, 2007

A whopping 1 percent of the 36,000 people of Hagerstown were born outside the United States, so maybe the attempt to resettle about 40 refugees a year there was asking for trouble. In any case, trouble was what it got.

A few townspeople were up in arms over the hiring of refugees - mostly from Africa and the former Soviet Union - at a local plastics plant. Theirs, by the way, were among the 2,000 jobs that Hagerstown has added just since 2006. Then a pregnant woman from Burundi had a spell of morning sickness on a public street, and once the hazmat team had arrived in full moonsuit get-up, you could guess that the municipal welcome mat wasn't going to stay out much longer. At the end of September, the Virginia Council of Churches, which had sponsored the resettlement program, pulled the plug on it after a five-year run.

People who recalled the Willie Mays incident - when the baseball star was jeered at during a game in Hagerstown in 1950 - and its sequel - when Mayor William M. Breichner failed in his 2005 attempt to rename a street after Mr. Mays as a way of making amends, and then was voted out of office - wonder why Hagerstown seems intent on giving itself a black eye. "We're not really Jena North," wrote Tim Rowland, a columnist for the Hagerstown Herald-Mail.

No, but for the first time in modern American history, immigrants and refugees are often bypassing the big cities and heading straight for settled towns and villages far from borders or ports of entry. It's a cultural collision, and it's happening nationwide; Hagerstown, founded by a German immigrant in 1762, is just the latest eruption.

Refugees have a particularly hard time of it. Forced to flee from their homelands rather than being lured by the prospect of work, they are typically resettled by well-meaning programs in places - such as Hagerstown - where they have no connection. Voluntary immigrants seek out relatives and friends in immigrant neighborhoods; on the other hand, a refugee from, say, the republic of Georgia is plopped down in Western Maryland and expected to start in on a new life. That's hard on the refugee - and on the lifelong residents.

Refugee communities often fail to take root; it happened several years ago with a project north of Patterson Park here in Baltimore. So the trouble in Hagerstown is disappointing - but it should not be surprising. The U.S. took in 41,000 refugees last year (not a large number), and the lesson is that success requires a large cultural adjustment, on both sides. Someday, with luck, the people of Hagerstown won't be so shocked by foreigners.

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