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G-Sync: Refugee Education Center advances new Americans through solutions-based programs

Susan Kragt, left, works with Basalissa Uwera at the Refugee Education Center.

For this month's conversation piece, we sit down with the Refugee Education Center's Executive Director Susan Kragt to garner a bit of insight into our region's vast and robust refugee population and how they are assisting in building meaningful solutions that enhance and grow our community for the better.
G-Sync: Refugee Education Center beautifully advances new Americans through solutions-based programming rooted in community-building.

Over the last few years as publisher, I have enjoyed sitting down and meeting one-on-one with so many folks who are creating a positive impact in our region for the benefit of our community.

Some of these folks and their organizations loom large and are well known for their mission and work, but there are also others who often labor at the edges of our society, equally contributing to the transformational work that is happening here as they and so many others seek to shift our community for the better.

One such group that is rising locally is the Refugee Education Center — an organization devoted to assisting the refugee populations of our city. 

For this month's conversation piece, we sit down for our first one-on-one interview with the Center's Executive Director Susan Kragt to garner a bit of insight into our region's vast and robust refugee population and how they are assisting in building meaningful solutions that enhance and grow our community for the better.

Tommy Allen, Publisher

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Tommy Allen: In my work within the community, I have found it important to start things off with a working definition to keep folks on the same page. Is there a definition for refugee that you find useful for your organization?

Susan Kragt: For refugees, we use the U.S. and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) official legal definition of a refugee as someone who's been forced to flee from their country. They have crossed the border into another country and are afraid of going back because they have a well-founded fear for their life — based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. So that's a pretty broad definition of what “refugee” can mean. Here at the Refugee Education Center, we specifically work with people in the United States that have been granted legal immigration status by the U.S. government.

Susan Kragt

TA: And before a refugee even arrives here in our community, the UNHCR and U.S. State Department have invested a lot of time and oversight in the process, correct?


SK: Yes. So you know a refugee crosses a border to seek asylum and then, when in that new country, whether it's the first country they crossed into or a couple of countries down the line, they are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 

TA: And from there I am assuming that a proving stage must follow next if asylum is the goal?

SK: If the individual can prove their case that to return to their homeland will make things worse in their lives and then [only] after a thorough investigation, including the extracting of biodata for the verification of who you say you are, can they be awarded the status of refugee. 

From there, the UNHCR shares that determination with the U.S. government, who then comes in to make their own determination and eligibility for a resettlement program here in the U.S.

TA: Is there something we miss or should key in on when we use the word "refugee?"

SK: The one thing I want to point out is that anyone that is eventually given the term refugee has crossed a border without being given permission necessarily to cross the border. It's how refugee works. You have to be able to cross the border to seek asylum in order to become a refugee wherever you are. And while it doesn't happen very often in the U.S. that people are able to seek asylum and become a refugee simply by our crossing into the States, it is important for people to understand that in the United States, our laws allow for people to cross borders to seek asylum.

TA: We often hear that the U.S. State Department that oversees refugee settlements has a long history of working with our region of Michigan in the placement of refugees in our community.

SK: The current refugee program has been operating since the 1980 Refugee Act and before that time there were Vietnamese and Hungarian refugees resettled in Grand Rapids through different programs via U.S. Presidents. Grand Rapids specifically has a long history of welcoming refugees. It's not something new right now [and] in spite of the national decrease, we've still seen a pretty regular flow compared to other communities that have really felt the decrease in refugee arrivals. 

So even as we say that we have this historic population already living here, we also have newly arriving refugees even now. And I would say there is a need for Grand Rapids to continue to speak out and say “Yes, we want refugees here." They're a big part of our community. They make us stronger, they make us better and more vibrant. For a city our size, we have a very significant as well as a very diverse refugee population. 

TA: Why do you think that the State Department has selected this region so often over the years for refugees?

SK: We've had a really good experience with area employers who are willing to work with refugees. As a result, it has brought economic development into our community.

Soon the Gateways for Growth report, produced through Samaritas, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, The Right Place, and other partners, will be released. This new report looks at the impact of refugees and immigrants in our community. And it's just obvious that it's been a benefit. So I think that you see just a continued desire here in our community to be welcoming. We understand that it just makes us stronger.

TA: I understand that your organization started as an after-school tutoring program specifically focused on the educational and youth development needs of the refugee children of the Somali Bantu community who had been resettled here. How did this lead to where we are today and what is now known as the Refugee Education Center?

SK: After serving the Somali Bantu for some years, we found that the work that we were doing was beneficial to any refugee. So we expanded and changed our name to the West Michigan Refugee Education and Cultural Center. Then a couple years ago, we cut that name down, for the sake of people remembering who we were, to the Refugee Education Center. But our mission still focuses on the education needs of the refugee children in our community.

TA: I am guessing the range of ages served is diverse, as well, given the nature of the work.

SK: We work with ages birth through high school graduation … and even into college and career. There are many organizations in our region who also service some of these needs. But because of our specific laser focus, we can ensure that these kids will graduate from high school and then be able to go on to pursue either further higher education or enter a successful career. We find this mission as a way to root entire communities more deeply here. 

TA: Are there other benefits from this rooting via your focus on education?

SK: So when you're able to be educated and advanced in your career, we find with refugees that then entire families and community structures benefit. Not just from the economic capital, but they are strengthened from the social capital they gain that allows them to navigate this new culture/space.

TA: You provide first and foremost educational services. Can you share how you accomplish that here at the Center?

SK: We're a liaison between parents and schools. And then we also have education services that are directed at parents. We help them understand what the U.S. school system is like and what they can you do to support their kid(s) entering this new school culture. 

For parents, they don't know what the pressures that a kid in the U.S. school system faces are and how they might be different than what they would have known in their country of origin. 

TA: And for educators?

SK: We also work with schools to do training of who refugees are. We share some of the cultural things one should know (as an educator) and how to watch out for mental health matters and other aspects, like PTSD, anxiety, or depression, that can come from culture shock. 


TA: That level of engagement with parents, students, and educators is so important. I also notice you have been adding a lot of new
programming over the years. This expansion includes your Converging Path Collaborative (which harnesses the knowledge base of community service organizations and area agency partners) to the debut of an exciting early childhood learning center, Hands Connected, on Eastern Avenue in the city of Grand Rapids. (The Refugee Education Center for years has had their main office in Kentwood but needed to expand for their new programming.) 

SK: Hands Connected came out of Bethany Christian Services several years ago when they received a grant through the federal government to help refugee men and women start up their own home-based, licensed child care centers. 

During that time, we discovered a need for ongoing support for these refugees in starting a new business. But we also noticed through our research with our partners Bethany Christian Services and the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative, that people wanted to work in this field out of their homes, so we formed Hands Connected with their assistance.

TA: And you serve what age brackets?

SK: We started two zero to three-year-old classrooms and are looking at how do we expand into three- and four-year-olds so that we can offer birth through kindergarten. Filling this gap means that we will be able to focus on that kindergarten readiness piece that everybody is talking about everywhere right now.

TA: What benefits are we seeing from this attention to detail? Have there been any discoveries?

SK:  We want to set a tone here that being an American doesn't mean abandoning your home culture. We all recognize that culture does change with time, that it is natural. So for us, it starts in early childhood with us letting families know it is ok to let your kid learn your home language. Obviously, at the end of the day, it's the parents who get to decide. We want parents to know [that] from day one. 

TA: What are other benefits of raising a child with dual languages (or more)?

SK: Your language is a lifeline to your culture. If your kids are not learning that home language, then imagine what that is like 20 years from now when they might not be able to speak to their grandparent. That is huge. 

TA: Studies have shown that children at certain ages are better suited for learning multiple languages. How does this factor into your work in language learning?

SK: We double down in the early childhood years since, while learning a new language at any age is a good thing, research shows we have the greatest benefit during these first few years because the brain is still very moldable. 

It's a lot easier for the brain at this young age to learn in multiple languages. It's incredibly good for the brain. Kids that are dual language learners tend to outpace their peers because their brain has developed in a way that it just responds quickly. It's more creative. 

TA: How will the work include children from birth to pre-kindergarten moving forward?

SK: We are actively working on a space for the location and will be partnering again with Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative to get a Great Start Readiness Program grant for our kids. We'll be looking for additional funding to help launch those classrooms as well as hire and train people who come from a refugee background and who already speak natively the language of our kids. This all helps in getting them the professional development skills they might need from the program.

TA: And while organizations always seek money since it is often desperately needed, how do you leverage or welcome human capital at the Refugee Education Center?

SK: Volunteers are great people, so even here we do have programs that you can work directly with their kids. You can tutor a student after school or help with our summer program, or even volunteer at Hands Connected. We always are looking for additional hands in the classrooms because, as you know, the more the merrier with kids. 

And we also need volunteers that might have the skills they think are not very helpful. We are also seeking people with experience in running a business, finance, or even tax preparation.  

One big area is assisting folks to learn basic computer skills like helping people learn something as easy as how to log onto a computer to helping folks fill out online forms. And so having volunteers fill in these gaps can really help us move further along as an organization.

TA: It sounds like these hands-on activities would really help you help others in advancing their knowledge base on how to navigate our digital world. 

One last topic, I have attended your fall community-building event in the past and wonder if you have anything planned 
specially for this year’s fundraising event?

SK: On October 17th, we will have our annual benefit “Planting Deeper Roots” at the Goei Center and at this dinner we'll be doing a book release for the book that the kids wrote together. 

They each created a superhero persona this year. We asked the kids, “If you could do anything to help the world, what would it be?” And in this book, we have kids that illustrate that they know their community's needs. They feel it every day and their desire is to get an education so that they can change that. Now, we do have some kids that shared insights like their desires to give everybody free movie tickets because everybody should be able to go to the movies. 

TA: I can get behind that last one. I love the community-building aspect of attending a movie together. 

SK: In this new book, we see kids that are flying back to their countries where they engage in activities like getting water or education. These refugee children also show how they want to help their community here. They are showing us adults that they are living that “Think Globally, Act Locally” mindset at the middle and elementary school level. 

We see them at the high school level addressing the needs ranging from helping their parents to assisting their community both here and abroad. 

Another insight is that they generally don’t look at this activity just as how it helps like say, “my Bhutanese refugee community,” but they're here to help all of us including those in West Michigan who need their creativity and minds to carry us forward.

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On October 17, the Refugee Education Center will host their annual "Planting Deeper Roots" at the Westside's Goei Center. For tickets, please visit this website.
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