Local creatives celebrate mid-Michigan refugees with storytelling exhibit

Most parties make memories. Jeremy Herliczek's party made a call for change.

Early last winter, the Lansing photographer hosted a social gathering for friends. Most guests were photographers. A few were writers. Others were artists and designers. And when the conversation veered to the emerging political landscape, some had a vision for social activism.

"Some people write letters. Some people go to protests," says Herliczek. "As creatives, we decided to start a grassroots effort to tell the stories of refugees."

Those stories, Herliczek says, draw on the power of photography and words to celebrate Greater Lansing's refugee community. They are the stories of people who restarted their lives after being displaced from their homelands by war and persecution. And in many ways, Herliczek says, they are the collective story of Lansing: a community that has welcomed refugees for more than 40 years.

"Our idea is not nearly to tell the stories of how refugees got here," Herliczek. "It's to tell the stories of how refugees add to our community, how they buy homes, start businesses, send kids to local schools. Our hope is to create a sense of empathy and encourage local residents to engage with refugees and support the agencies that help them."

Settling on storytelling

Herliczek took the lead along with two local fine arts and documentary photographers to define a project that involves a traveling exhibit, book and website built on the idea of storytelling.

Refuge Lansing: Stories of Resettlement in Mid-Michigan began its journey the week before World Refugee Awareness Week. Several hundred people gathered in the Capitol Building on June 13 for the unveiling of a traveling exhibit that features Lansing's refugee community through the work of area photographers and writers. The event included a greeting by State Rep. Sam Singh in the Michigan House of Representatives Chamber in support of refugee resettlement.

From there, the exhibit went on the road to schools, businesses, community centers and faith-based groups—the first stop being the Refugee Development Center on June 21. Stories are also being compiled in a soon-to-be released book and website.

"The response we saw talks about our values," says Herliczek. ""It shows that we value differences here, and that we respond to fear by celebrating differences. It was exciting to see and embodies the principles of what we say with the hash tag Love Lansing."

Herliczek, Roxanne Frith and Amanda Grieshop drew on their professional network to enlist talent and resources for the project. Within weeks, the three assembled 12 teams of one photographer and one writer each—all volunteering to donate their time and expertise for an estimated total value of $30,000. Herliczek, Frith and Grieshop also worked with four local organizations involved in refugee services to find refugees willing to share their stories.

"That was one of the hardest parts of the whole project," Herliczek says, remarking that an overwhelming number of photographers and writers volunteered. "Refugees and immigrants are scared right now. They are confused about their rights. And they are worried about whether this is still a welcoming country and community."

Freelance photojournalist Rod Sanford was among the local talent contributing to the project. Sanford was paired with writer Melissa Kaplan of Lansing Community College Performing Arts to tell the story of a local family resettled from Iraq.

"This project was right up my alley," says Sanford, who worked as a photojournalist for the Lansing State Journal for 30 years. "You meet people you don't actually know. You try to figure out how best to portray them quickly. And you learn a little about their lives."

Sanford says he was in from the moment he first heard about the project. His decades of work as a photojournalist included occasional photo stories of the area's immigrant and migrant communities. What he most remembered from those assignments, he says, was the kindness, warmth and generosity he received, with nothing expected in return.

"It always struck me that somebody would come here and must have encountered thousands of problems, and then open up their homes and treat us so nicely," he says. "No matter how many refugees or immigrants I've met, no matter their situation, their hospitality is always so amazing,"

Sanford says he photographed the family at home, at work in their auto dealership, and at play during a barbeque at Hawk Island.

"A lot of it was just capturing small things," he says. "As journalists, we're privileged to see things that most people don't get to see. Just being able to show that people are people opens up possibilities rather than shutting doors. It's nothing more politically complicated than that. It's just simple human decency."

Finding a match

Judi Harris leads one of local refugee service agencies that helped matched creative teams with families. As the director of Refugee Services for St. Vincent Catholic Charities, Harris oversees the local workings of the federal refugee resettlement program that started in the late 1970s with the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

St. Vincent's Refugee Services welcomes refugees to the Lansing area, assists with basic essentials, and helps refugees reach self-sufficiency. In the last 40 years ago, St. Vincent's has resettled more than 15,000-20,000 refugees from 48 countries, the most recent including the Congo, Somalia, Bhutan, Burma and Iraq.

Lansing has long been a welcoming city for refugees, beginning with people from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and evolving to include arrivals of people fleeing conflict and persecution in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and Central America. Among Lansing's selling points are the relatively low cost of living, affordable housing stock, diversity of employers, neighborhood and educational services, and ease of transportation.

"This program has had bipartisan support from every president since it began," says Harris. "It's only been in the last year that refugees have started to be scapegoated. We've seen so many people who have come here who have done great things. We know it has been very positive."

In 2016, 85,000 refugees were settled nationwide, with about 800 in Lansing. Harris says that the President's aim for a 65 percent reduction would limit refugees to 50,000 per year—and is based on the premise that the restrictions are needed for national security.

Recent numbers from the United Nations show that today, more than 65 million people in the world have been displaced from their homes by war or persecution and fled to a second county. Of that total, about 22 million are refugees seeking resettlement to other nations like the U.S. Half are children, and fewer than 1 percent will ever resettle in another country. The process, including extensive vetting, takes an average of 18 months.

But recent crackdowns on travel to and from Muslim majority countries have affected the number of refugees allowed in the U.S. And while executive orders by President Trump are being challenged, Harris says Lansing and other refugee friendly cities nationwide are waiting to see the effects.

"We hope people see that there are lots of human services programs out there, and that this is one that really saves lives," says Harris. "It's mutually beneficial. We help refugees when they first get here, but they pay it back by starting businesses, employing people, consuming goods and services, and paying taxes. It's an investment when you provide services to refugees. It all comes back to our community and then some."

Making Lansing home

Robin Miner-Swartz told the story of one such refugee and his family making a difference in Lansing.

"We talk all the time about people who want to be social entrepreneurs," says Miner-Swartz, owner of Miner-Swartz Editing and Consulting. "I wrote about a Nepali refugee in this area who is doing just that."

Miner-Swartz teamed with Lansing photographer and scientist Khalid Ibrahim to share of the story of a 25-year-old Nepali and his family who resettled in Lansing starting in 2009. Binod's parents own and operate a food market in South Lansing, and the current MSU student wants to help his family's store source produce from Michigan farms and businesses.

"What I really appreciated was when he graduated from Everett with a 4.0 he joined the army because he felt it important to give back to the country," says Miner-Swartz. "He spent time in Afghanistan."

Miner-Swartz says she that while she's been part of a project that looks to build awareness and understanding in the general public, the project has also been educational for her. She admits that despite her long involvement with community organizations, she didn't fully understand a vital point of what it means to be a refugee: that they may not have lived if they had stayed in their homeland.

"I hope we can stop trying to build up walls around everything to keep people away," says Miner-Swartz. "Whether that be in our community or city or state. This is the most important time for us to reach out—to show people you are welcome here."

Organizers of Refuge Lansing set up a Go Fund Me site to support printing costs, including a book with all stories and pictures. All proceeds from book sales will be donated to local agencies that support refugees. To learn more about the project or to donate, visit the crowdfunding site here.

In addition to St. Vincent's, other organizations in Lansing serving refugees include Samaritas, the Refugee Development Center, and the Global Institute of Lansing. Want to learn more about the project, read stories, or get involved by hosting the traveling exhibit? Visit the website here.

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Ann Kammerer is the News Editor for Capital Gains and writes occasional features.


Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.

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