Refugee supporters in Kalamazoo work to make community a Sanctuary City

Prior to the November presidential election, the City of Kalamazoo and Kalamazoo County voted to be known as Welcoming Communities — communities that have made commitments to be welcoming to immigrants and refugees. The City of Kalamazoo reaffirmed that status at the city commission’s Feb. 6 meeting in a discussion of what it means for police and those undocumented individuals they might encounter.

Given President Trump's refugee and immigration ban and related actions, local advocates are saying they are committed to their efforts to make Kalamazoo a Sanctuary City, with specific municipal ordinances that go beyond the current Welcoming Community proclamation that is not binding.

President Trump's executive order has affected some 90,000 people, according to The Washington Post. Making good on his promise to address immigration in his first week in office, Trump signed a number of orders, which included beginning the immediate construction of a border fence along the Mexico border and beefing up border patrol, tripling resources for immigration enforcement, targeting Sanctuary Cities by stripping them of federal funds, banning all incoming refugees for four months, and banning immigrants from seven majority Muslim countries for three months. 

Angela Fortin serves on the leadership task force of the Kalamazoo Refugee Council. She says that the most recent executive order and anticipated policies to follow are devastating for the families her group currently works with, some of whom were expecting family members to join them. 

"They may now be separated, with hope of reunification slipping away," Fortin says. “Many parents are also worried their children will be taken from them. They have been struggling, emotionally, since the election. It is taking a toll on them, as well as the volunteers helping them.”

Even before the new bans and restrictions, the obstacles for refugee families were numerous. Fortin says that parents work low wage jobs, find it difficult to pay bills, and are raising kids in another culture, against a backdrop of loss and trauma.

"They have lost family members, homes, and businesses. They have escaped war and lived in refugee camps, often for years," says Fortin.  

The Kalamazoo Refugee Council is a platform where stakeholders come together, network, problem-solve, and partner in pursuit of a stronger and more welcoming community. The Refugee Council supports service-providing agencies and works to make sure that refugees and immigrants are both celebrated and believed to be critical to Southwest Michigan’s economic and cultural vibrancy. 

The Council takes in and distributes donations (clothing, furniture, home goods), supports sponsoring congregations and groups, arranges transportation for refugees, and provides English tutoring. The Council partners with the resettlement agencies Bethany Christian Services and Samaritas to create a bridge between the family's caseworker and a community support network.

Fortin says that the biggest need right now is for more churches and organized groups to support families. Sponsors help with figuring out transportation, finding employment opportunities, reading and responding to mail, learning English, and attending medical appointments. Basically, sponsors stand in for extended family and friends, welcoming refugees and helping to set them up to succeed in the United States.

Hosting families as part of resistance

Isaac Turner, an English professor at KVCC, recalls having dinner with his partner, Malanie, also an English professor, and their preschool and middle-school aged children last year. "It was a day of some awful, unimaginable thing happening in Syria, and we talked about trying to be a foster home or something for refugees. We agreed it would be the right thing to do, but had a hard time connecting with the sponsoring organization."

Then the election results came in — something he refers to as, "the actual worst happened."  That next Saturday he just showed up at a local mosque to do whatever was needed. He's been involved ever since.

Turner is sponsoring a refugee family of nine, giving them rides to ESL classes three or four times a week, and anything else they may need on a day-to-day basis. "We work on English in their home, have them over to our place, generally hang out. Lately it's been filling out a lot of paperwork for various reasons," he says.

In addition to the family they sponsor, Turner also co-signed on a house for a newly settled family of eight, something he admits he maybe should have taken more time to think about but, he says, he just dove in and is hoping for the best. 

Turner says this volunteer work means the world to him. "I've done so much awful stuff in my life that I'm paying back my dues now!" he says. And Turner is quick to point out that refugees are normal folks. 

"All of the foibles, the humorous parts, the quirks, the insecurities, the prejudices, they're all there. They are intensely normal people who've been through intensely abnormal circumstances," Turner says, pointing out that were the roles reversed, he has no doubt he'd have "folded like a cheap suit." 

He is in genuine awe and admiration of the perseverance shown by refugees through untenable situations.  

Turner considers this work something he calls "an active part of the resistance." And he says it's pretty cool that he gets new friends out of the deal, too.

Sanctuary in Kalamazoo?

From protests and actions to lawsuits to commitments from government officials to not participate in orders, resisting is taking on myriad forms these days. Rev. Nathan Dannison, Senior Pastor of First Congregational Church in Kalamazoo, sees his faith as the catalyst behind his resistance efforts in offering sanctuary — not just personally and in his church community — but in pushing for those efforts in the greater Kalamazoo Community. 

Nathan DannisonAfter the election, Dannison began organizing around efforts to urge city officials to make Kalamazoo a Sanctuary City. A Sanctuary City offers safe harbor for undocumented immigrants who might otherwise be deported by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. 

"All American cities provide sanctuary to a lesser or greater degree. It troubles me that we have reached a point in our history where individual cities are denoted as providing sanctuary," Dannison says. 

Trump's administration has already promised that Sanctuary Cities will not receive Federal Funding until they agree to cooperate with immigration officers. But, federal repercussions aren't the only potential thing blocking the path of Sanctuary Cities. The Michigan Legislature is considering a bill — HB 4105 — that, if passed, would order cities to comply with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and remove state funding from communities who do not.

With the new promises from the Trump administration to withhold federal dollars from Sanctuary Cities, and the potential of the state also withholding funding, how likely would a proposal to make Kalamazoo a Sanctuary City be? Dannison says this is yet to be seen. 

"My hope is that our municipal leaders will show forth courage in the face of fiscal threats and big-government posturing from Washington D.C.," he says. Dannison says that the orders banning refugees and immigrants from seven majority Muslim countries have only emboldened his efforts and those of the organizations he networks with. 

He calls the bans "unconstitutional and un-American" and says, "Immigration is the fuel that drives American innovation." 

Religious and non-religious, alike, band together

"Those of us who are called to be Christian and have found, by accident of birth, that we are also Americans, have a serious responsibility to welcome the refugee, the immigrant, and the sojourner to table," Dannison says, reiterating his faith-based commitment to the issue. 

Turner, who says he is an atheist, says he has "no horse in that (religious) race whatsoever." He says people who aren't religious can be involved, too. 

"I've spent more time in a mosque in the past two months that I have in a church in the last 25 years, or whenever I got confirmed. That's proven to be much easier than I thought it would," Turner says. "It's incredibly easy to compartmentalize that area of your life when you see kids and adults who need help learning how to say the days of the week, and who are asking questions like, "Why do they think we're all extremists?"

Kathi Valeii is a freelance writer, living in Kalamazoo. You can find her at her website,
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