Embracing Michigan's long history of refugee resettlement, state opens arms to newcomers

The thousands of refugees who resettle in Michigan each year arrive after escaping almost unimaginable horror: they have seen family members and friends murdered right in front of them; others have been tortured, their lives and the lives of their parents, siblings and children threatened. They have watched their villages and cities burned, the places they called have home their entire lives — lands of snow-topped mountains and breathtakingly vast deserts, places of thousands of years of history where they and their family have lived for generations — reduced to something unrecognizable, from where they are forced to leave and often to which they can never return.
 
For decades, these refugees from around the globe have been welcomed with open arms to cities and towns across Michigan, with everyone from Europeans rebuilding their lives after World War II to people escaping the violence that has consumed places like Iraq and Syria or families fleeing civil wars in such countries as Bosnia and the Congo calling the Mitten State their new home. They arrive with almost nothing, often not speaking English or knowing anyone in the United States. They — these former business owners and doctors and lawyers and teachers — must start all over again.
 
And, piece by piece, they do. With the help of refugee resettlement organizations, as well as everyday citizens, they learn the language, enroll themselves and their children in school, graduate from college and graduate programs, open the small businesses that are the backbone of our economy, and much more. Here, they celebrate weddings and births, buy their own homes, and become American citizens. They go from not knowing on a daily basis if they will live or die to building lives in Michigan, a state they once knew solely from lines on a map.
 
However, as Michiganders work to help families piece their lives together again, there are growing concerns that Gov. Rick Snyder's call, following November's terrorist attacks in Paris, for a pause to his advocacy efforts to resettle refugees in the state will result in fewer people being able to come to Michigan, as well as a fear that statements made by the governor, and other lawmakers, regarding refugees could propagate fear and resentment towards the already traumatized refugees who are here, or about to arrive.
 
To combat this, Michiganders are raising their voices and calling for the state to do what it has proudly done for decades: welcome refugees and help them to remake their lives in a state made stronger by the refugees who have done everything from open businesses to go into medicine and nonprofit work here.
 
"As Americans, we may forget that our own roots trace back to refugees and immigrants seeking freedom and opportunity," says Sam Beals, the CEO of Lutheran Social Services of Michigan (LSSM), one of the leading nonprofit groups that resettles refugees across the state, including in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Lansing, Troy, and elsewhere.
 
" Our nation was built on the concept of opportunity and welcome," continues Beals, whose organization resettled 1,127 refugees throughout Michigan last year. "It is our legacy. To respond with fear to horrific incidents perpetrated by destructive organizations is not the American way. As an organization, we have been welcoming refugees to Michigan since 1949 and helping them build lives of safety, productivity, and success. The refugees we resettle are hard-working families who fled the countries of their birth due to danger, war, and persecution, and they simply seek safety and freedom."
 
What does Gov. Snyder's 'pause' on refugee efforts really mean?
 
ISIS — the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an extremist militant organization that has seized control of land in Syria and Iraq, prompting a mass exodus of citizens who hope to escape the ISIS-led terror (as well as the violence propagated by Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad, among others) — claimed responsibility for a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 that left 130 people dead and hundreds more wounded. Initial reports from Paris claimed that one of the attackers had a Syrian passport, though French authorities recently said the passport is likely fake. A French official confirmed that one of the terrorists had made their way to Europe along with a group of Syrian refugees.
 
Following the attacks, Snyder was the first governor to call for a "pause" in his advocacy to admit refugees to the U.S.. After his remarks, more than two dozen governors and other legislators across the country echoed Snyder, with some going further and vowing to block Syrian refugees from entering their state altogether — statements that have been lambasted by other lawmakers, including former Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who, like refugee resettlement officials throughout the state, stress that the Syrian refugees are running for their lives to escape the same terrorist group that attacked Paris.
 
Dave Murray, Snyder's press secretary, says the governor's comments have been misrepresented in the media, emphasizing that when the governor said he wanted to "pause" refugee resettlement efforts, he did not mean entirely bar already-vetted refugees from entering Michigan; he simply aimed to halt his own advocacy to bring additional refugees to the state.
 
"Michigan is a welcoming state, and we're very proud of our immigration heritage," Murray told us in a December interview. "Governor Snyder has said he's one of the most immigration-friendly governors in the country… After the string of terror attacks in Paris and Beirut, it's appropriate to pause our efforts."
 
Just prior to the Paris attacks, a pair of suicide bombings in a heavily trafficked area in Beirut killed more than 40 people. ISIS claimed responsibility for those attacks as well.
 
Murray says that while Snyder continues to welcome the Syrian refugees into the state who had already been slated to arrive, the governor wants to further vet the process by which the country admits refugees. In November, Snyder sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, asking that a bipartisan coalition of state and federal authorities, including governors, work together to assess the country's refugee resettlement program.
 
"It's only common sense when you have something terrible happen that you pause and reevaluate," Murray says. "What have we learned from these attacks?"
 
Standing up for refugees in Michigan
Photo by Anna Gustafson


The governor's statements have upset residents, and thousands of Michiganders have signed various petitions, doing everything from condemning the governor's statements to simply saying they welcome refugees in the state. From nonprofit CEOs to college students raising money for refugees, they all stress the necessity of taking care of the world's most vulnerable populations and taking a stand against terrorism by giving a home to those running away from countries upended by it.
 
Susan Kragt, the director of the West Michigan Refugee Education and Cultural Center says her group and the refugees they work with have not experienced any kind of backlash following Snyder's statements, but she is concerned that the governor's words, and the general national debate over whether or not to accept refugees into the country, has "stirred up fear that shouldn't be there instead of giving people information to calm their fears."
 
Murray disagrees.
 
"We have a vibrant immigrant community; Michigan is a welcoming state, and we have a strong heritage of being that," Murray says. "[The governor's statement] is not an intent to frighten anyone, and I don't think it did."
 
However, Sam Attal, who left Syria for Michigan in 1989 and now aids Syrian refugees in the Grand Rapids area, says refugees are "absolutely scared" because of anti-refugee rhetoric from politicians at all levels, including Republican Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. In Lansing, state Sen. Patrick Colbeck (R-Canton), introduced a non-binding resolution that urges Snyder to continue his "pause" on bringing refugees to Michigan — a resolution that was lambasted by a number of other lawmakers and which was never voted on when debated in January.
 
"They can't decipher the nuances of American politics, and they wonder, 'Am I going to jail? Will I be deported?' says Attal, who works with an unofficial group of fellow West Michigan volunteers to provide everything from translation services to transportation for Syrian refugees. "There's so much going on, and they don't understand it.
 
"It's unfortunate that politicians have to cater to a vocal minority," continues Attal, who also works as a physician in Grand Rapids. "I don't think it's the American way, this reaction, and I hope it will fade."
 
Many of those working with refugees, as well as high-profile officials like U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, repeatedly highlight the security measures involved in the refugee resettlement process are extremely tight. (You can see what the screening process is like here, and it is, indeed, a long and involved one that includes the FBI, State Department, Department of Defense, and more.)

A representative from the Arab American and Chaldean Council, a nonprofit human service organization that annually resettles hundreds of refugees in southeast Michigan, notes the vetting process for refugees frequently takes years, and Beals, of LSSM, stresses this as well.

"This country has a long history of carefully selecting the individuals and families we allow to step inside our borders and start fresh on American soil," Beals says. "Our organization resettles individuals who have been cleared by first the United Nations and then the Department of Homeland Security, in partnership with the Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services and Episcopal Migration Ministries. They come to us, and we help them rebuild their lives."

Beals continues, saying it is "a moral imperative to open our borders to refugees."

"There are currently 19 million refugees in the world seeking safety in welcoming countries; four million of them are Syrians," he says. "The integrity of our humanity depends on helping those in need. We cannot be halted by fear."
Kragt echoes this sentiment.

"I have family and friends and neighbors I care about; I would not willingly put them at risk, and we don't believe that's happening or can happen," she says. "We're all concerned about security, but we can be compassionate because the system is set up in a way that we're not putting ourselves in harm's way. It's really hard to get in as a refugee. I just hope that people realize they don't have to be afraid. There's freedom in not being afraid; be hospitable and reach out."

To prevent any kind of backlash against the refugee community, nonprofit employees and volunteers are sharing information about both the security measures regarding refugees, as well as positive stories about the state's newcomers.
Kristine Van Noord, the program manager of the Refugee Adult & Family Programs at Bethany Christian Services, which works with refugees throughout the state, says her organization is informing people about the "extremely in-depth security process that refugees go through and sharing what the process looks like."

"We educate people on who refugees are, what their needs are and what their screening process is like," she says, adding that she encourages Michiganders to get involved with groups working with refugees.

"I think once you meet people and hear their stories, it changes everything," Van Noord continues. "It changes the dynamic of how you respond. These are people who have fled horrible things and are lovely people who bring so much to our community."

Lynne Golodner, a spokeswoman for LSSM, agrees, saying, "once people understand who refugees are and why refugee resettlement is so important, the negativity dissipates."

"The recent situations and comments have actually spurred public support, and LSSM has been receiving a significant number of inquiries from people, organizations and congregations who want to sponsor refugee families through very generous donations, volunteering and other avenues," Golodner says. "It has added a challenge for us, and an inspiration, to be more vocal and more bold in speaking about what LSSM has been doing for a number of years. Now we have a platform for talking to the public more and help dispel the myths and fears that refugees might be potential terrorists, which they are not."

And while the governor and other politicians have made inflammatory remarks regarding refugees, nonprofits across the state say groups will continue to resettle refugees in Michigan.

"We're hoping it's a temporary pause, but, in the meantime, we've been able to continue to welcome refugees with the full knowledge and understanding of the governor's office," Van Noord says.

Michganders advocating for welcoming refugees into the city have also been buoyed by statements made by former Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, who left office in December due to term limits; Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan; and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, all of whom say refugees are welcome in their respective cities.

"We must not "turn this event into a witch-hunt that would sweep innocent people up in its nets," Heartwell wrote in a prepared statement following the Paris attacks. "If we use this terror to turn xenophobic, to repel freedom-seeking people at our borders, or to look unkindly at those whose faith is other than our own, then the terrorists will have succeeded, and the end of the American soul cannot be far away."

Heartwell, Duggan and Bernero were three of 62 mayors from across the U.S. who at the end of November issued a letter to Congress that detailed their support for refugees.

Who are the refugees living in Michigan?
Photo by Adam Bird


Michigan has a long history of welcoming refugees into the state, with Golodner noting that resettlement efforts here can be traced back to the 1940s, when organizations like LSSM helped immigrant and refugee groups restart their lives following the Second World War, beginning with large groups of Jewish refugees. In West Michigan, large scale efforts to aid refugees launched in the 1950s, when Hungarian refugees began arriving en masse following World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, Kragt says.

"Then, in the 1970s, Gerald R. Ford was instrumental in getting Vietnamese refugees settled into the United States," Kragt says, adding that because of Ford's connection to Grand Rapids, "there was a community-wide effort to be welcoming to refugees."

The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement reports that 4,006 refugees were resettled in the state in the 2014 fiscal year, the most recent year for which the agency has statistics, with the largest number of people — 2,751 — coming from Iraq. There were also 409 individuals from Burma, 273 from Somalia, 225 from the Congo, and 184 from Bhutan.

While Golodner says "there are some communities which are not very welcoming to refugees," which means LSSM will not resettle individuals and families in these "very isolated pockets," Michigan is, overall, a place that opens its arms to newcomers.

"Michigan continues to be a place where refugees feel welcome and they feel comfortable in their new communities and can successfully integrate," Golodner says.

As for Syrians, many of the individuals who have fled their homes have gone to Europe, or the countries surrounding Syria, but a couple thousand — 2,290, according to the U.S. State Department's Refugee Processing Center — have arrived in the United States since 2011, when the civil war erupted in Syria. (Side note: this is a small percentage of the 22,427 Syrian refugees who have been referred to the United States for resettlement consideration by the United Nations since 2013.)
A fair number of those individuals have arrived in locales across Michigan. According to the State Department, about 200 Syrian refugees resettled in Michigan in 2014 and 2015. Many of the Syrian families move to the eastern part of the state, while just a handful live in West Michigan.

And while Syrian refugees are receiving much of the spotlight because of the atrocities that have erupted in their country, where a civil war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more, they represent a small percentage of those who are resettled. For example, the Arab American and Chaldean Council, which works in Oakland, Wayne and Macomb Counties, resettled 73 Syrian refugees out of the 523 total refugees they resettled in the last fiscal year. Bethany Christian Services, meanwhile, welcomed 279 refugees in the past fiscal year, 27 of whom were from Syria. Since April, Van Noord says Bethany has resettled 34 Syrians who are part of six family groups.

Explaining why people are fleeing their homes for the U.S., Attal, who himself is Syrian, describes a situation that is almost incomprehensible to those of us in the United States.

"These are not economic migrants," Attal says. "Most of the immigrants who come to the U.S. come for economic reasons — these people have been forced out of their homes. In Syria, they were prosperous; they were doing well. They owned a business. Then, war broke out, and they were forced out of their homes, and they lost everything."

Van Noord says, "in places like Burma and Bhutan, it's been ethnic cleansing" that drives people from their land.
 
"The government would go in and burn villages and make people completely scatter," she says. "People have been tortured. In the Congo, there's a high percentage of women whose husbands have been murdered right in front of them, and they've been raped and now have children from that rape. There are people who have been persecuted because of their religious or ethnic affiliation or political opinion. These are really horrible things that people have gone through.
 
"They flee their countries and usually go into a neighboring country, trying to find hope and a future, and they'll often be denied that in the second country. They'll be in refugee camps, and out of all the refugees in the world, less than 1 percent have a chance to resettle in a third country. We get a chance to welcome them in the U.S. and give them hope and a future."
 
From a refugee camp to Michigan
 
One such person who found that future in Michigan — Grand Rapids, specifically — is Abdi Osman.
 
At the age of seven, Osman left his home in Somalia, a country that had been, and continues to be, torn apart by an ongoing civil war, waving goodbye to the only world he had ever known — his loving parents, a country that he has not seen again — and made his way across the southwestern border to Kenya. There, Osman, a 26-year-old who now lives in Grand Rapids, and his older brother ushered in the turn of the 21st century and their new lives in a United Nations-run refugee camp.
 
"It was my father's decision for me to go; he wanted me to go to school and have a better future," Osman says. "Where I lived in Somalia, there weren't proper schools where people can go. In the refugee camps, the schools were sponsored by the UN, so there were schools available there."
 
This emphasis on education is one that has followed Osman throughout his life, and, as a child, he always dreamed of being a doctor — something he is now going to school for at Grand Valley State University. In Kenya, Osman was happy to be part of an education system that was better than the one in his home country. Still, his world was far from perfect, and he clung to dreams of a more stable life, one in which he could focus on his studies and not worry about having enough food or a place to live.
 
"Living in a refugee camp, you feel like you have no hope, like you're in a dark room with no windows," Osman says. "But if you have the opportunity to go somewhere where you can actually get an education, where you have the freedom to pursue your career, that is what you want."
 
Eventually, Osman and his family got word that they would be able to resettle in the U.S., though they ended up having to wait two and a half years after that announcement before they were able to actually leave Kenya, due in part to the rigorous vetting process the United States has implemented for refugees.
 
"I was so excited to hear we were going to the U.S.," Osman says. "We had books with photos from the U.S., photos of kids going to school, school buses, doctors treating patients. I was really excited and anxious to leave. But the process took years, and I had almost given up at the end. We had moved to a second refugee camp by then, and the food was in really short supply, shelter too. It wasn't a good feeling."
 
However, when he was in ninth grade, Osman and his brother, along with his brother's wife and two children, became part of the less than 1 percent of the global refugee population (which the UN reported has, for the first time in the post-World War II era, exceeded 50 million people) to resettle in a third country (refugees often settle in a country other than their homeland after fleeing violence or political strife, though they're frequently denied citizenship in these countries). For the first time ever, Osman boarded a plane, flying from the refugee camp to Nairobi before leaving for Newark, New Jersey. Once in the U.S., Osman and his family made their way to Grand Rapids, where he has lived ever since.
 
"When I first moved here, to Grand Rapids, there were volunteers who came to our house and brought us stuff, and we said, 'OK, we're not afraid anymore; these people are here to help us," he says. "People welcomed us, brought us some food, clothing — everything that we didn't have. We were really happy; my family was really happy.
 
"I felt welcomed; I felt like I was home," Osman continues. "People were nice. At the schools I went to, the students and the teachers were really humble and welcoming."
 
Now, Osman is double majoring in international relations and medicine — he's hoping to provide healthcare to refugees across the world one day — and, at the same time, is working at the West Michigan Refugee Education and Cultural Center, where he helps to resettle refugees much like himself and his family.
 
"The people who are coming here are forced to; it's not a personal choice," Osman says. "It's important to welcome refugees."
 
The Grand Rapidian continues, saying he was particularly hard hit when he heard Snyder's statement regarding refugees.
 
"This really hit me, when they said they don't want to welcome refugees," he says. "These people, they want to live freely. They have no clothing, no shelter, nothing. They can't go home; all their homes are destroyed. They have nothing."
 
Fleeing the Bosnian civil war, family builds a multi-million dollar business
 
Asim Latic, 46, had $300 in his pocket when he arrived as a refugee from Bosnia in 1996. Now, two decades later, he and his brothers employ hundreds of people at four businesses that have become a community bedrock in their town of Warren, Michigan —  Midwest Freight Systems, Sherwood Truck Repair & Parts, Superior Truck Sales and Lease, and Midwest Freight Logistics.
 
Escaping from a civil war that broke out in Bosnia in the 1990s, Asim and his brothers Samir, Almir and Kasim, lived in refugee camps in Croatia before settling into Warren, where more than 5,000 people have Bosnian roots, with the help of LSSM.
 
"We are contributing a lot to this city," Samir, whose American education culminated in being accepted to a Ph.D. program at Creighton University, says in a release from LSSM.  "We have invested close to $1 million to make this part of town safer and more attractive."
 
Amir notes they never dreamed they'd go from living in a war-torn country to running a business empire.
 
"We came here only to find jobs; we didn't know we'd build a whole business," he says. "We started with a single truck and worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Now licensed to work in 48 states, we still work hard and we just keep growing."
 
Beals, of LSSM, describes the family is an example of the kind of work that is being done by refugees across the state and country.
 
"Today, 75 percent of the refugees we welcome are self-sufficient within 180 days," Beals says in the same statement from his organization. "The Latic family is a prime example of how with a little support, refugees can become big contributors to our society. "
 
How Michiganders can help
 
There are numerous opportunities for Michigan residents to lend a hand to refugees in their communities.
 
LSSM, the Arab American Chaldean Council,  West Michigan Refugee Education and Cultural Center, and the Bethany Christian Services are looking for volunteers. To find out more about volunteering at LSSM, which is looking for help with transportation, English tutoring, job searches, welcoming newcomers at the airport, and more, please go here.
 
Transportation can be a major barrier for many refugees, and the Arab American Chaldean Council is looking for individuals to drive people to appointments, such as doctor's visits. To inquire further, call the Council's main number at (248) 558-1990.
 
For information about volunteering at the West Michigan Refugee Education and Cultural Center, which is predominantly looking for tutors, you can visit their website here, and to learn about volunteering at Bethany, you can visit the organization's website here. Bethany has a variety of volunteer opportunities, including for groups, such as a church, school or community organization, to help sponsor a family, meaning they assist in furnishing their apartment, welcoming the family to the country, and providing support for the family's initial days in the United States.
 
Attal, who works with a group of about 50 to 60 volunteers, says his group always welcomes additional volunteers from the Grand Rapids area. To inquire further, please email Houssam Attal at houssamattal@gmail.com.
 
Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, which also works with numerous refugees, is also accepting volunteers, as is the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
 
Donations, from mattresses to cash and much more, are welcome at each of the organizations. To find out how to donate items, as well as purchase needed items through an Amazon wish list, for LSSM, please go here. LSSM is looking for a broad range of items, including furniture, toiletries, vehicles, and more.
 
The Arab American Chaldean Council is in need of household goods, sheets, clothes, furniture, small appliances, and more.  Please call the Council's main number at (248) 558-1990 to find out more.
 
Donations to Bethany Christian Services are also welcome, Van Noord says. The group is looking for new or gently used items to furnish people's homes. Additionally, an anonymous donor has given $350,000 in matching funds to Bethany Christian Services, which will assist refugees — particularly those from the Middle East, Van Noord says. The matching funds will end on March 31. To find out more, please go here.
 
Kragt emphasizes that residents can also push their government representatives to be open to Michigan receiving refugees.
 
"Right now policy issues are a big thing," Kragt says. "Calling your representatives, telling them you support refugees is helpful. Donate to groups working with refugees. Because refugees are forced to migrate, they tend to the be the immigrants with the least amount of resources… But once they get their feet under them, they thrive."
 
Or, if you'd rather do something on your own instead of through another organization, that's possible too. Daniel Kang, a University of Michigan student from Troy, Michigan, raised $15,100 through a crowdfunding campaign for Refaai Hamo and his children — a refugee family from Syria who received worldwide attention after being featured on the Humans of New York site.
 
"It felt like a shame that somebody of that caliber wouldn't be able to accomplish something for humanity; I think that was the biggest thing that motivated me," Kang says of Hamo, who was a scientist in Syria before his home was bombed, killing his wife, a daughter and other family members.
 
And, Kang advises, remember that you are helping people, not a statistic.
 
"When people talk about helping refugees, there's an impersonal feel about all these people migrating from one country to another," Kang says. "But when you talk to them, it's different. When I talked to Mr. Hamo and his family, they told me about living these very normal lives. They're very educated people who went to school and lived a normal life, and their whole life collapsed."
 
However, even if you don't have time or money to give, Osman says a wave and a "hello" can go a long way.
 
"Be human, like they are, and welcome them," Osman says. "Being a refugee isn't something that anyone wants to be."

Anna Gustafson is the managing editor of Rapid Growth, an Issue Media Group publication.
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