What Lansing is doing to better support its refugee populations

The world is a chaotic place. With what seems like endless wars, countless displaced people, and the ever increasing need for humanitarian efforts on behalf of those most affected, it can be disheartening, to say the least. But among the many things that Lansing does well, is that we open our arms and our hearts to those who need a new place to settle. A space in which to grow and flourish and thrive. A place to call home.

With a little help from my friends

Judi Harris, the Refugee Services Director at St. Vincent Catholic Charities says that traditionally, Lansing has taken about 600 refugees a year. But 2016 will be different. This year, due to increased need for good resettlement cities, we will be accepting about 135 more than that. "They asked, and we said yes." Harris explains. But what does that mean for the Capital region, and how can we prepare to meet the needs of all these people arriving in our city this year?

"Our biggest challenge is housing." Harris says, "Safe, decent, affordable housing for families." But once they are housed, living and engaging in their new communities, the benefits are enormous. "Landlords love us," Harris says, smiling. "Refugees tend to take great care of their homes. The neighborhoods get nicer, there are kids playing outside. [They] bring a lot of good to a community, and most people here recognize that."

Which is why, Harris points out, they have such an incredible support network here in the Lansing area. People want to be involved and make a difference. "We get calls all the time [from]  people saying they want to help, but don't know how. So we've created what we call 'Ministries', which are a variety of different ways that the Lansing community can reach out and welcome all these amazing people who are arriving here to start a new life."

Things like sharing a plot in your garden with a local refugee family who would love to grow vegetables, but are living in an apartment where gardening isn't an option. Or volunteering to teach someone to drive because they need to know how but often can't afford the classes. Or even helping a young adult to navigate the process of applying for colleges so they can further their education. There are many ways to help, it's just a matter of figuring out what you are able to do.

Get together

"Newcomers" is actually the word Erika Brown Binion, Executive Director of the Refugee Development Center (RDC), prefers to use when talking about displaced people who have resettled in Lansing. Why, you wonder? Well, "refugee" implies a temporary status, someone who cannot go home. And so it's a label that many of them would rather not have. After all, this is their home now, but in order to make a place your home, you have to be able to claim it as your own. And part of that means shedding the labels that keep you from ownership.

Because of the growing number of people they provide services for, the RDC has a lot of resources already in place. Handling the increase in newcomers to the area will not be difficult. "In 2008 we provided services to just under 400 people, whereas in 2015, it was 1,700 people." Brown Binion explains, "Our system is very flexible, so even if there is a considerable spike in arriving numbers, we can handle it with no problem."

Change the world

Ben Rawlence, author of the New York Times Bestselling book City of Thorns, spent years during his time as a researcher for Human Rights Watch visiting Dadaab, a refugee camp on the eastern border of Kenya, and documenting some of the lives of the 300,000 people who live there. What he saw there was heartbreaking, and it's one of the main reasons he is now hoping to draw people's attention to the extent of the problem, worldwide.

"The UN infrastructure for dealing with these situations is broken." Rawlence explains, "and historically, the developed world resettled far more people in need. But the conflicts are not ending, and they are so wide, so far reaching, that the tap has now been turned off. So as a whole, we are just not doing enough."

But that's where Lansing is different. "What Lansing is doing," Rawlence says, "is important. We need many more cities like this one, all over the world, if we are going to have a hope of addressing this crisis."

"Lansing is such a welcoming place, and people feel so comfortable here that it allows them to settle in and become contributing members of society really quickly," Brown Binion says. 

Evidence of this can be seen in the fact that Lansing has a really low attrition rate, which means that people who are resettled here tend to stay on. They have children, buy homes, start businesses. They really put down roots, which is something that many other resettlement cities around the US don't often experience. 

It's a small world

Something to keep in mind, though, is the fact that we often make the mistake of thinking that this is a one-sided act of goodwill. A single-sided kindness, so to speak. But where it comes to the resettling of refugees, that perspective couldn't be more wrong.

"Over the years, people have left Michigan due to economic crisis," Brown Binion says. "They go seeking jobs elsewhere so the incoming refugee population has allowed for an increase of economic growth here." Which makes sense, when you think about the fact that diversity promotes both creativity, innovation, and economic growth.

It's a fact that Rawlence points out whenever he addresses a crowd about the need for change in worldwide immigration policy. "There are a number of examples of places, all around the world, that have flourished as a result of the refugees that have been resettled there. Places like Southern Italy and Germany." And it's one of the reasons that Lansing's economy is getting stronger with each passing year.

You have only to enjoy a bowl of Tom Yum soup or Shah noodles at Naing Myanmar Family Restaurant, buy a scoop of lentils or a bunch of fresh salad greens at ZZ's Market, or sit down to a delicious serving of spinach pie or goulash at Mediteran Cafe, to see how our refugee population has enriched our city.

See what love can do

While St Vincent Catholic Charities handles the finding and furnishing of houses, getting jobs and assisting in all the many aspects of the resettlement process, and the RDC handles the education aspect, there are other needs that must be met. Needs that we often hear less about, but are still vitally important.

Lutheran Social Services of Michigan is the organization tasked with finding homes for unaccompanied refugee minors. These are the teenagers who, having been separated from their families during periods of war, ethnic cleansing, and political upheaval, have no one to care for them. Not young enough to be taken in and cared for by other families, but not old enough to be truly independent, these are the youth who so often become the victims of trafficking and other abuses.

But according to Diane Baird, the Refugee Foster Care Program Manager, the hardest part of this effort is finding enough families that are willing to open their homes to a teen who needs a loving and stable environment. "The kids go through an intensive vetting process that can take up to two years," she says, "but they don't actually arrive here until we have found a family for them."

"Thankfully, the city passed the resolution to make Lansing a welcoming city for refugees, and we have some great advocates on the city council." But the recruitment never stops, as the need is unending. "Because the licensing process takes a while," Baird says, "we try to recruit families now for the specific populations that we anticipate in the future."

This means working hard to ensure that the specific needs of the youth are met, based on their cultures, languages, and sometimes even more personal factors. "One of the areas that we are always trying to address is the needs of LGBT youth." Baird explains. "Many of them have been persecuted for their sexual orientation, and so they need loving, understanding families who can support them as they come of age."

Our refugee population here in Lansing is increasing, there is no doubt about it. And as a result, we will face challenges along the way, and obstacles we will have to work together to overcome. But one thing that everyone seems to agree on is the fact that whether you are a US-born Michigander, or a foreign-born Michigander, this is a good place to call home. 

We are the world

As I was interviewing people and doing research for this article, it became clear to me that I needed to be part of the solution, not simply a mouthpiece who was discussing the problem. After long talks with my husband and children about our role in society and what we are able to do, we have decided to foster an unaccompanied refugee minor in need of a home.

The process, which we have only just begun, is a long one. There is a considerable amount of paperwork and licensing red tape to work through, but we believe that this opportunity will make our family stronger, bring us closer together, and give us a chance to make a positive impact, however small, on someone else's future. After all, opening ours hearts and our homes seems like a very "Lansing" thing to do.


Sarah Hillman is a freelance writer for Capital Gains.
Photos © Dave Trumpie
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
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