Faith communities and others help refugees feel at home in Kalamazoo

Editor's Note: This story is part of our Faith in Action series of stories exploring faith-based and faith-inspired works, the people accomplishing them, and the connections with the community they are creating. The series is supported by the Fetzer Institute.

KALAMAZOO, MI — No one came to welcome Joshua Kibezi and his family when they arrived in the United States in 2013. Kibezi spoke no English. He knew almost nothing about how life works in this strange new country. 

“It was tough,” he says. “Really, really tough. We arrived first in Minnesota, and it was a bad winter. My family is from the Republic of Congo — we had never seen snow before, never felt that kind of cold. My first thought was that we should go back to the refugee camps in Malawi, but the immigration people said no, we can’t go back.”

Clothing, shelter, and food were all immediate concerns for the Kibezi family. Joshua Kibezi began with a job as a dishwasher. The family remained in Minnesota for four years, slowly learning English and acclimating to life in their new country. 

Rev. Joshua Kibezi of the African Community Kalamazoo unloads supplies.“Life began to change when I began to learn the language,” Kibezi says. “But I would always remember how it felt to be a refugee in a new country. I wanted to help other refugees. We moved to Kentucky for a while to do that, but then moved to Kalamazoo in 2017 because one of my pastors was here — and he was like a brother.”

Giving back 

Kibezi, too, had become a pastor. His faith had been a guiding light to help him in his new life, and in 2019, after receiving a grant from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, that faith guided him to establish a nonprofit called African Community Kalamazoo (ACF) at 3616 East G Ave. 

“We began with a room in a church where we could teach English and computer skills,” he says. “Another pastor volunteered to help, and Kalamazoo College sent students to teach classes, too.”

Kibezi dedicated every waking hour to helping refugees coming to the Kalamazoo area. At first, he focused on refugees from African countries but then expanded to all refugees from all countries, cultures, and faiths. 

“Many come from refugee camps and resettlement programs. Some from the southern border. We give people three months of help to get started,” Kibezi says. “We help them find housing and jobs, we take them to medical appointments, find legal help, transportation, food, whatever they need. We help people who have a green card obtain citizenship and apply for work visas.”

Kibezi recounts many such moments of extending a hand as when he delivered food and water to a 95-year-old woman who received the gift with tears. 

“She said I saved her life that day,” Kibezi says. 

Members of the African Community KalamazooAFC has helped 355 families in greater Kalamazoo during 2023, distributing food donations from Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes and 10,000 diapers every two weeks. 

“I use a grant to buy semolina and rice for refugees who want to make African dishes,” Kibezi says. “And we have land now where we hope to build housing. We are praying to open an African restaurant, plant a garden, and open a barber shop. Our future goal is to offer 55 jobs for refugees. I cannot give up on this work or my people will suffer. In my heart, I know I must help.”

Guided by faith

That same sentiment is echoed at the Refugee Friends Free Store, a collaboration of 20 caseworkers and volunteers from Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Congregation of Moses, People’s Church, and Temple B’Nai Israel along with others throughout the community. Samaritas and Bethany Christian Services work with the synagogues and churches to send over refugees needing help.  

“The free store opened in winter 2022 to fill a need for clothing for Afghan refugees arriving in Kalamazoo after the sudden pullout by the United States,” says Janet Nykaza, a volunteer.

CourtesyInterior of Refugee Friends Store“Refugees were arriving without suitable winter clothing, such as coats, hats, mittens, or boots. The Congregation of Moses generously provided space in their teen lounge. Because of their support and community donations, the store has been providing free used and new clothes, shoes, purses, toys, soccer stuff, books, sewing supplies including fabric, baby equipment, and some household and personal care products for the last two years.”

“We looked like an Amazon warehouse for a while,” adds Tamara Preston, administrative assistant at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church. “We had a post on Facebook about the Afghan refugees and donations flooded in from across the country. The response was incredible. We could furnish a household with what we received. We were able to resettle 200 Afghan families at that start.”

With that opening, the Refugee Friends Free Store has continued to provide for refugees, providing housewares and furniture, clothes, toys, and baby equipment. An especially popular item is a sewing machine. 

“We have one volunteer who picks up and pays for sewing machine repairs for the machines we receive,” Nykaza says. “The sewing machines are empowering for the many refugee women who are skilled at sewing.”

CourtesyDolls donated at the Refugee Friends Store at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church.The store also provides items for women preparing to give birth — bassinets, cribs, bathtubs, linens, infant clothes, and more. Small, everyday items such as irons, hair dryers, and scissors, can make a big difference. Unsuitable or excess inventory is taken to Kalamazoo Deacon’s Conference, Discovery Shop, KPS, Kalamazoo Defenders, and others. Clothing that is worn or stained is recycled. Volunteers work to repair items that require it. Twice a year, inventory is updated to suit the season, but winter clothing is always critical.

“Refugees have come from at least 17 countries — Afghanistan, Turkey, Syria, CAR, Congo, Eretria, Sudan, Iraq, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Senegal, Burundi, Rwanda, Yemen, Myanmar, Cuba, Venezuela,” says Nykaza. “We don’t always know where the families originated. Sometimes the families have been in refugee camps for decades, so the young adults may say they are from Tanzania or Rwanda, but their country of origin was Congo.”

Returning to give to others

Colleen VanSlambrouck is one of the volunteers who works at the store. “I’ve volunteered here since December 2021,” she says. “I’ve met so many wonderful people on both sides — volunteers and refugees.

Some of the refugees, once they get settled, return to work here as volunteers. We see all kinds of responses. Some are very traumatized by their experiences. Others want to hoard what they can get for fear of being without, while still others have a hard time accepting what they are given.”

The store opens by appointment only, Monday through Friday, and when the refugees come in, each is met by a volunteer eager to help. If the refugees can’t come in, caseworkers may come in to shop for them. Between May 2022 to May 2023, approximately 500 shoppers have come to the store or have been shopped for by other volunteers or caseworkers. 

CourtesyVolunteers Colleen VanSlambrouck and Janet Nykaza at the Refugee Friends Free StoreWhen language becomes a barrier, refugees often volunteer to translate and offer interpretation for others. 

“A unique feature is that several people who came to Kalamazoo as refugees now volunteer in the store regularly or help us virtually over the phone with translations,” Nykaza says. “Their ability to speak languages like Pashto, Dari, Arabic, Swahili, Kinyarwanda, has been important for interpreting for the newly arriving families.”

At Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, refugees may attend ESL — English as a Second Language — classes to help them acclimate to their new surroundings. 

“The Kalamazoo Literacy Council offers the ESL classes here,” says Tamara Preston. “We provide the space and they run the classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

The volunteers are aware of the recent backlash against refugees crossing borders and coming to the United States — but they will have none of it. It is not how they understand their faith. 

“We are very social justice oriented,” Preston says. 

“People of different faiths come into the store,” VanSlambrouck says. “A few times we hear something along the lines of ‘Shouldn’t we care for our own?’ And we do that, too. We are also working on resources to help the homeless in our community. But there are many other resources available for the homeless. And when we get donations of larger sizes of clothing, those often are too big for refugees, so we give those to homeless shelters. We give them what we can’t use.”

In her experience, Nykaza says, support has been almost entirely positive. Many people who have never been in a synagogue stop by to drop off their donations and may end up volunteering when they see what is accomplished there — no matter their faith. 

“There continue to be many smiles, and a sense of pride in sharing humanity with people in need, and a long way from their homes of origin,” Nykaza says. 

For more information on volunteering, donating, or shopping, please call and leave a message at 269-342-5464, ext. 16.  Families must have an appointment to shop. Donations are accepted most mornings or by arrangement.

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Read more articles by Zinta Aistars.

Zinta Aistars is the creative director of Z Word, LLC. She is the producer and host of the weekly radio show, Art Beat, on WMUK.