Lansing's refugee community: What can you do to make a difference?

One of the struggles that many Lansing residents face in these conflicted times is figuring out how to help support refugee communities. How to be involved in some meaningful way that will allow them to support the many existing and newcomer refugee families who have settled here over the years, and now call Lansing home. For many refugees, starting over offers opportunities to start flourishing small businesses which have served to enrich the Lansing area in a number of ways. One of those ways, it seems, is through the medium of good food. So if you are looking for a way to support refugees in the Lansing area, look no further than your tastebuds.

Fill your belly!

Moe Naing Israel and Mi Latt Thanda came to the United States as refugees from Burma and Thailand, respectively. With no more than a bag of belongings and their young son in tow, they arrived and brought with them the dream of opening a restaurant. It took a few years to save the money they needed, but Naing Myanmar Family Restaurant opened to loud acclaim and has garnered a faithful following ever since.

Israel says that Lansing is the perfect place for his family, and that their restaurant has been a success because people here have welcomed them with open arms. "My goal is to feed everyone with a delicious, affordable meal!" He exclaims. "I want people to come with only ten dollars in their pocket, fill their bellies, and go. That is my dream!"

'Mo and Mi', as their regulars call them, are not the only ones for whom food has provided an avenue by which to connect with the community. In 2016, Juliano Jean-Jules, originally a refugee from Haiti who resettled here almost 20 years ago, teamed up with his current business partner to form the Lil BBQ Shack. Offering a variety of Island inspired dishes and traditional BBQ favorites with a Caribbean twist, this tiny restaurant sells made-from-scratch BBQ sauces and seasoning mixes that Jean-Jules hopes to market independently one day.

Open your mouth!

Beyond delicious food, however, there is a lot more that you could do to be involved and make a difference. If you want to continue the tradition of Lansing being a welcoming city for those who are fleeing persecution, war and famine, you can pick up the phone and call your representatives to speak up in defense of refugees.

A vast number of bills are introduced annually on a federal, state, and local level. So whether it's a local ordinance you feel strongly about, or a federal regulation you want to voice your opinion on, one of the rights your citizenship affords you is the ability to be involved in politics. The issue of refugee resettlement, both here in Lansing and on a much larger scale, is something that can be influenced by people just like you! So be sure to use your voice for good!

Erika Brown-Binion, who heads up the Refugee Development Center (RDC) in Lansing, feels very strongly about the importance of speaking on behalf of those whose voices are often not heard. "Welcoming refugees has long been one of America's core values. Refugee newcomers are families, business owners, home owners, tax payers, students and teachers. They are an integral part of the rich fabric that makes up our communities. So be an advocate and speak up when you hear misconceptions being spread. And don't forget to talk to your elected officials!"

Lend a hand!

Want to do more? Don't worry - there are all sorts of ways in which you can lend a hand and support the resettled refugees who call the capital area home. From loaning out arable plots of land, to purchasing household goods for incoming families, there are countless meaningful ways to be involved.

Judi Harris, the Program Director of Refugee Services at St. Vincent Catholic Charities (SVCC), claims that no matter what your budget or availability is, there is something you can do to help! If you have time to share, there are loads of options. For example, teaching a refugee to drive a car, providing after school tutoring or help applying for college, or even just attending the soccer games of Lansing's "Newcomer" team, which consists entirely of refugee kids, to cheer them them on.

If time is short, but you have a little cash to spare, there are lots of needs to be met. Donating $100 sends a refugee child to the RDC's annual summer Globe Camp. Gathering a group together and buying furniture for S.V.C.C's Adopt-a-room program helps to prepare a home for new refugee arrivals. In fact, simply donating to St. Vincent Catholic Charities or the Refugee Development Center will mean contributing to much needed academic and social adjustment needs.

Open your heart!

One of the areas of refugee resettlement that gets far less media coverage in Lansing, is the issue of unaccompanied refugee minors. Starting as young as nine or ten, young people arrive in the U.S. alone, having lost their families to war or other disasters, and need a place to call home. Most start out the journey with family members, or at least care takers, but the stress of fleeing disaster takes it's toll in lives.

Once they make it through the intensive vetting process, these young tweens and teens are without homes, without families, and without a stable future. By opening your home and your heart, you can provide a refugee minor with a loving family to nurture and support them as they strive for adult independence.

Michelle Haskell, the outreach team lead at Samaritus who oversees family and volunteer recruitment here in Lansing, says that the process of becoming a foster parent is intense, but the payout is priceless. "The connections and relationships made through fostering a refugee minor last for a lifetime. While formal adoption is rarely an option, these kids become part of the family and bring so much joy. Really, it will change your life!"

Expand your mind

Always wanted to try your hand at cooking that delicious Thai dish you love, but don't have a clue where to find authentic ingredients? What about Lubia Polo- that wonderful Persian green bean rice, or traditional Peruvian fish soup? Experimenting in the kitchen with ethnic cuisines from around the world can be a little daunting if you can't find that specific spice or fruit that you need.

Lucky you! You live in Lansing, where a number of refugees from different countries have opened grocery stores to bring you produce, seasonings and goods from all over the world. Trying your hand at Asian cooking? Stop by the Dong An Market on MLK, which is owned by a Vietnamese refugee family. Another option would be the International Food Market on South Cedar, which is owned and operated by Bhutanese refugees.

Want even more variety? Perhaps beans from Brazil, fruit from India, or veggies from Nepal? Look no further than ZZ's Produce on MLK. The owner, Zana Zangana came to the U.S. as a Kurdish refugee many years ago, but has since gained his citizenship, opened two successful grocery stores, and written a book on theology, which just happens to one of his favorite subjects to talk to about.

Step up to the plate

The ways in which Lansing residents can support our refugee community is boundless.
The debate about whether or not Lansing should be a sanctuary city is highly charged one, with people bringing valid concerns to the table on both sides. But in the opinion of many people working with the refugee population in Lansing, including Mayor Virg Bernero, we don't need an official status to determine our welcoming nature - we are already a city with open arms and open hearts. So Lansing, if you love the idea of a rich and diverse city full of people from all over the world, now is the time to step up and get involved. You won't regret it.


Sarah Hillman is a frequent contributor to 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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