She doesn’t remember the night she and her adoptive mother had to flee Ethiopia for their safety, but Patience Buckwalter loves to hear the story. “The militia came into our small village, and they were hurting people. It was too dangerous to stay,” she explains. Her mother escaped in the middle of the night and made the 15-hour trek with then three-year-old Patience to Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa. The pair then made their way to the United States, where they settled near her mother’s family in upstate New York.
“My mother was a missionary nurse in Ethiopia for eight years,” Patience continues. “My birth mother got really sick and passed away. My father was a hunter. I was the youngest of my siblings, and he wasn’t quite sure how to take care of a baby.” Her father took her to a nearby clinic, hoping that someone would be able to take better care of his child. It was there that her mom, a single woman, created a bond with one-year-old Patience and starting asking around about the process of adoption. Thinking of his baby’s future, her father agreed. Patience continues, “She would have liked to keep me in Ethiopia, so we could be close to my siblings and him. But he completely understood when we had to leave in such a rush.”
Despite having to leave Ethiopia, Patience and her mom stayed in contact with her birth family. “We’d write letters, send pictures,” she says. “I went back for the first time that I remember when I was 11, and then again when I was 23, and we’re hoping to go back this year. We’ve always kept the Ethiopian culture alive in our household—having Ethiopian food, going to Ethiopian church services—and my mother speaks the language, Oromo.”
After graduating from high school, Patience and her mother moved to Lancaster to be near her grandparents, who had retired to Landis Homes. She earned her associate degree in human services from HACC, then her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from Millersville, where she now serves as an adjunct professor and field liaison. Her experiences as an Ethiopian adoptee spurred her interest in different cultures and led her to specialize in working with immigrants and refugees in the Lancaster area: “I have always been interested in different cultures, and foods, languages. Just the way somebody’s culture influences them and how they interact with other people.”
Not long after moving to Lancaster, Patience and her mother became friends with a Syrian and Iraqi family that moved in nearby. As years passed, she noticed that the family still had trouble adjusting to everyday life in Lancaster. “I would go there to visit them and I would always be asked to check their mail, just help guide them—which I’m totally fine with doing,” she admits, “but even though they had past their resettlement process time, they still needed that extra support. I also noticed that the woman struggled with maintaining or getting employment outside of the home. Just culturally, you know? Like, ‘Do I work more or less hours? What kind of work can I do? I don’t really have the degree, I don’t have the skillset.’”
One thing Patience also noticed was that every time she visited, the woman would provide food. “She’s an amazing cook,” Patience laughs. “So one day I was thinking, and said, ‘If I provided a space for you to showcase your food, or a space for people to eat your food, would you enjoy cooking on a regular basis?’ and she said, ‘Can we do it tomorrow?’”
It was there that the idea for the Grape Leaf Café was born. In 2018, Patience, who doesn’t cook and didn’t know the first thing about the restaurant industry, took it upon herself to find a mentor and learn everything she could to allow Lancaster’s refugee women to showcase their cultural cuisine—and get paid for it. “We started just as a pop-up because we didn’t have a location, and we would just go to little events, pop-up events. We’d go to conferences, fairs… at first I had six women cooking. I had a Syrian woman, Congolese, Sudanese, Pakistani, Nepali,” she beams. As word spread about the café, Patience had more and more women with different cultural backgrounds reach out to offer their expertise.
Now, the café has found a permanent home on James Street in downtown Lancaster. Located nearby is Patience’s other passion project, the Grape Leaf Empowerment Center, which she founded to help Lancaster’s many refugees and immigrants gather socially as well as receive specialized services and resources. “We serve youth, men, women and children,” says Patience, adding, “and it’s a safe gathering space. It can support families beyond 90 days. I realized that we needed something, and through just hearing from other communities, people needed a center that they could call their own. And so this is the center that they can call their own.” Much to Patience’s delight, two of the first groups to regularly utilize the Empowerment Center were from Africa.
In the end, behind everything she does to give back to the community is the thought of her birth family, still living in poverty in Ethiopia. “I feel so privileged to be here,” she acknowledges. “Our lives are so, so very different, but we’re still connected by the Ethiopian culture.”
To learn more about Grape Leaf, visit grapeleafcenter.com.