Embracing Michigan's long history of refugee resettlement, Grand Rapids opens arms to newcomers

Grand Rapidians and West Michiganders are raising their voices and calling for the state to do what it has proudly done for decades: welcome refugees and help them to remake their lives here.
We have all seen the images: the seemingly endless lines of people fleeing Syrian towns and cities — ancient places framed by snow-topped mountains and breathtakingly vast desert in which they grew up — their hands holding bundled-up infants, their arms comforting children whose homes have been blown apart by a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more. We have seen the uprooted families huddled around fires in crowded refugee camps and the dangerously overloaded rafts filled with doctors and lawyers and teachers who want nothing more than to live in a place where they do not have to worry about their families being killed.

In response to the atrocities that we have watched unfold on our television and computer screens, and which have become commonplace in Syria, Michiganders, including, until recently, Gov. Rick Snyder, have been vocal about wanting to welcome refugees with open arms into a state that has a long history of resettling people escaping unimaginable violence and persecution.

While many of the individuals who have fled their homes in Syria have gone to Europe, or the countries surrounding Syria, a couple thousand — 2,290, according to the U.S. State Department’s Refugee Processing Center — have arrived in the United States since 2011, when the civil war erupted in Syria. (Side note: this is a small percentage of the 22,427 Syrian refugees who have been referred to the United States for resettlement consideration by the United Nations since 2013.)

A fair number of those individuals have arrived in locales across Michigan, which routinely places as one of the top 10 states in the U.S. to welcome refugees. According to the State Department, about 200 Syrian refugees resettled in Michigan in 2014 and 2015, with 45 of those individuals now living in Grand Rapids. These people are making their home in our city, thanks to the groups like Grand Rapids-based Bethany Christian Services and the West Michigan Refugee Education & Cultural Center in Kentwood — organizations that annually help hundreds of refugees from across the globe do everything from learn English to find jobs and connect with community members.

Photo courtesy West Michigan Refugee Education and Cultural Center.However, as Michiganders work to help families piece their lives together again, there are growing concerns that the governor’s call, following November’s terrorist attacks in Paris, for a pause to his advocacy efforts to resettle refugees in the state will result in fewer people being able to come to Grand Rapids, and Michigan in general, as well as a fear that statements made by the governor, and other lawmakers, regarding refugees could propagate fear and resentment towards the already traumatized refugees who are here, or about to arrive.

To combat this, Grand Rapidians and West Michiganders are raising their voices and calling for the state to do what it has proudly done for decades: welcome refugees and help them to remake their lives in a city, and a state, made stronger by the refugees who have done everything from open businesses to go into medicine and nonprofit work here.

“Refugees are the single most scrutinized and vetted group that come to the United States,” says Kristine Van Noord, the program manager of the Refugee Adult & Family Programs at Bethany Christian Services, one of the major groups working with refugees in the Grand Rapids area. “It’s an extremely in-depth process… Refugees are the victims here. They are fleeing for their lives; the U.S. resettlement program is a life-saving program. In places like Syria and Iraq, they’re fleeing ISIS; they’re victims of this terrorism.

“Michigan has been a very welcoming place for refugees, and we’re hoping that will continue,” Van Noord says. “Refugees are paying taxes, buying homes, starting businesses. They’re adding so much to Grand Rapids.”

What does Gov. Snyder's 'pause' on refugee efforts really mean?

ISIS— the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an extremist militant organization that has seized control of land in Syria and Iraq, prompting a mass exodus of citizens who hope to escape the ISIS-led terror (as well as the violence propagated by Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad, among others) — claimed responsibility for a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 that left 130 people dead and hundreds more wounded. Initial reports from Paris claimed that one of the attackers had a Syrian passport, though French authorities recently said the passport is likely fake. A French official confirmed that one of the terrorists had made their way to Europe along with a group of Syrian refugees.

Following the attacks, Snyder was the first governor to call for a “pause” in his advocacy to admit refugees to the U.S.. After his remarks, more than two dozen governors and other legislators across the country echoed Snyder, with some going further and vowing to block Syrian refugees from entering their state altogether — statements that have been lambasted by other lawmakers who, like refugee resettlement leaders in Grand Rapids, stress that the Syrian refugees are running for their lives to escape the same terrorist group that attacked Paris.

Photo by Adam BirdDave Murray, Snyder’s press secretary, says the governor's comments have been misrepresented in the media, emphasizing that when the governor said he wanted to “pause” refugee resettlement efforts, he did not mean entirely bar already-vetted refugees from entering Michigan; he simply aimed to halt his own advocacy to bring additional refugees to the state.

“Michigan is a welcoming state, and we’re very proud of our immigration heritage,” Murray says. “Governor Snyder has said he’s one of the most immigration-friendly governors in the country… After the string of terror attacks in Paris and Beirut, it’s appropriate to pause our efforts.”

Just prior to the Paris attacks, a pair of suicide bombings in a heavily trafficked area in Beirut killed more than 40 people. ISIS claimed responsibility for those attacks as well.

Murray says that while Snyder continues to welcome the Syrian refugees into the state who had already been slated to arrive, the governor wants to further vet the process by which the country admits refugees. Recently, Snyder sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, asking that a bipartisan coalition of state and federal authorities, including governors, work together to assess the country’s refugee resettlement program.

“It’s only common sense when you have something terrible happen that you pause and reevaluate,” Murray says. “What have we learned from these attacks?”

Standing up for refugees in Grand Rapids

The governor’s statements have upset residents, and thousands of Michiganders have signed various petitions, doing everything from condemning the governor’s statements to simply saying they welcome refugees in the state. Susan Kragt, the director of the West Michigan Refugee Education and Cultural Center, which works with refugees in Grand Rapids and the areas surrounding the city, says her group and the refugees they work with have not experienced any kind of backlash following Snyder’s statements, but she is concerned that the governor’s words, and the general national debate over whether or not to accept refugees into the country, has “stirred up fear that shouldn’t be there instead of giving people information to calm their fears.”

Murray disagrees.

“We have a vibrant immigrant community; Michigan is a welcoming state, and we have a strong heritage of being that,” Murray says. “[The governor’s statement] is not an intent to frighten anyone, and I don’t think it did.”

Both Kragt and Van Noord, from Bethany Christian Services, along with federal officials like Secretary of State Kerry, repeatedly stress that the security measures involved in the refugee resettlement process are extremely tight. (You can see what the screening process is like here, and it is, indeed, a long and involved one that includes the FBI, State Department, Department of Defense, and more.)

“I have family and friends and neighbors I care about; I would not willingly put them at risk, and we don’t believe that’s happening or can happen,” Kragt says. “We’re all concerned about security, but we can be compassionate because the system is set up in a way that we’re not putting ourselves in harm’s way. It’s really hard to get in as a refugee. I just hope that people realize they don’t have to be afraid. There’s freedom in not being afraid; be hospitable and reach out.”

To prevent any kind of backlash against the refugee community, Van Noord says her organization, which works with 700 to 800 refugees in West Michigan each year, is informing people about the “extremely in-depth security process that refugees go through and sharing what the process looks like.

“We educate people on who refugees are, what their needs are and what their screening process is like,” she says, adding that she encourages Grand Rapidians to get involved with groups working with refugees.

“I think once you meet people and hear their stories, it changes everything,” Van Noord continues. “It changes the dynamic of how you respond. These are people who have fled horrible things and are lovely people who bring so much to our community.”

Plus, Van Noord says, community groups will continue to resettle refugees in the area.

“We’re hoping it’s a temporary pause, but, in the meantime, we’ve been able to continue to welcome refugees with the full knowledge and understanding of the governor’s office,” she says.

Grand Rapidians advocating for welcoming refugees into the city have been buoyed by statements made by Mayor George Heartwell, who urged residents to not be consumed by fear following the Paris attacks.

We must not “turn this event into a witch-hunt that would sweep innocent people up in its nets,” Heartwell says in a prepared statement. “If we use this terror to turn xenophobic, to repel freedom-seeking people at our borders, or to look unkindly at those whose faith is other than our own, then the terrorists will have succeeded, and the end of the American soul cannot be far away.

“I, for one, refuse to be afraid,” Heartwell continues. “I refuse to hate. I refuse to respond to violence with suspicion of my neighbor. Today I call on you, the citizens of this great city, to do the same.”

Grand Rapids residents cheered this statement by Heartwell and took to the streets last week to urge the governor to follow in the footsteps of the city’s mayor.

Under heavy gray skies, residents from across Grand Rapids arrived at the corner of Fulton and Division last Monday evening, the individuals clad in bulky winter sweaters and coats carrying bright blue and red signs that screamed for change: “Thank you Heartwell, shame on Snyder,” “Stop war, not refugees,” and “Refugees welcome here.”

During the rally, the residents spoke of Michigan’s long history  of welcoming refugees fleeing almost unimaginable horror, of the necessity to take care of the world’s most vulnerable populations, of taking a stand against terrorism by giving a home to those running away from a country upended by it.

“People should stand up for what’s right,” says Tom Burke, a member of the Institute for Global Education, a Wealthy Street-based organization that promotes human rights and education about multicultural and religious awareness.

“We wanted to come out and say we’re pro-refugee, pro-immigrant and anti-war,” Burke continues. “We’re out here to build public opinion. We need to build movements that demand social change.”

Ralliers say they’re hopeful the warm reception they received from the general public during this week’s event will be indicative of a changing political climate in Michigan, one that diverts from Snyder’s “pause” and instead embraces Heartwell’s call to open arms to those fleeing for their lives.

“I think people are afraid to have a voice, but you have a right to have one,” says Kim McKeon, another member of the Institute for Global Education. “Something has to be done about ISIS, but the way they’re handling it isn’t it.”

Who are the refugees living in Grand Rapids?

West Michigan can trace its large scale efforts to resettle refugees to the 1950s, when Hungarian refugees began arriving en masse following World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, Kragt says.

“Then, in the 1970s, Gerald R. Ford was instrumental in getting Vietnamese refugees settled into the United States,” Kragt says, adding that because of Ford’s connection to Grand Rapids, “there was a community-wide effort to be welcoming to refugees.”

For decades now, West Michigan has “a strong history of really being proactive in saying they want to resettle refugees,” Kragt says, adding that “West Michigan is so unique for a community our size; we do resettle quite a few [refugees].

“There’s a culture of hospitality here,” she continues. “By in large, we’ve seen people be really welcoming.”

In recent years, about 600 to 700 refugees arrive each year in West Michigan, and that number is expected to grow next year. Individuals coming into our area are from countries across the globe, with many of the refugees hailing from Burma, Bhutan, Iraq, Somalia,Congo, South Sudan, Syria, and Afghanistan, Van Noord says.

Bethany Christian Services welcomed 279 refugees in the past fiscal year (October 2014 to September 30, 2015), 27 of whom were from Syria. Since April, Van Noord says Bethany Christian Services has welcomed 34 Syrians who are part of six family groups.

While the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement did not offer statistics for specific Michigan counties, the organization did report that 4,006 refugees were resettled in the state in the 2014 fiscal year, with the largest number of people — 2,751 — coming from Iraq. There were also 409 individuals from Burma, 273 from Somalia, 225 from the Congo, and 184 from Bhutan.

Explaining why people are fleeing their homes to come to the U.S., Van Noord says, “in places like Burma and Bhutan, it’s been ethnic cleansing” that forces people from their land.

"The government would go in and burn villages and make people completely scatter,” she says. “People have been tortured. In the Congo, there’s a high percentage of women whose husbands have been murdered right in front of them, and they’ve been raped and now have children from that rape. There are people who have been persecuted because of their religious or ethnic affiliation or political opinion. These are really horrible things that people have gone through.

“They flee their countries and usually go into a neighboring country, trying to find hope and a future, and they’ll often be denied that in the second country. They’ll be in refugee camps, and out of all the refugees in the world, less than 1 percent have a chance to resettle in a third country. We get a chance to welcome them in the U.S. and give them hope and a future.”

From a refugee camp to Grand Rapids

One such person who found that future in the U.S. is Abdi Osman.

At the age of seven, Osman left his home in Somalia, a country that had been, and continues to be, torn apart by an ongoing civil war, waving goodbye to the only world he had ever known — his loving parents, a country that he has not seen again — and made his way across the southwestern border to Kenya. There, Osman, a 26-year-old who now lives in Grand Rapids, and his older brother ushered in the turn of the 21st century and their new lives in a United Nations-run refugee camp.

“It was my father’s decision for me to go; he wanted me to go to school and have a better future,” Osman says. “Where I lived in Somalia, there weren’t proper schools where people can go. In the refugee camps, the schools were sponsored by the UN, so there were schools available there.”

This emphasis on education is one that has followed Osman throughout his life, and, as a child, he always dreamed of being a doctor — something he is now going to school for at Grand Valley State University. In Kenya, Osman was happy to be part of an education system that was better than the one in his home country. Still, his world was far from perfect, and he clung to dreams of a more stable life, one in which he could focus on his studies and not worry about having enough food or a place to live.

“Living in a refugee camp, you feel like you have no hope, like you’re in a dark room with no windows,” Osman says. “But if you have the opportunity to go somewhere where you can actually get an education, where you have the freedom to pursue your career, that is what you want.”

Eventually, Osman and his family got word that they would be able to resettle in the U.S., though they ended up having to wait two and a half years after that announcement before they were able to actually leave Kenya, due in part to the rigorous vetting process the United States has implemented for refugees.

“I was so excited to hear we were going to the U.S.,” Osman says. “We had books with photos from the U.S., photos of kids going to school, school buses, doctors treating patients. I was really excited and anxious to leave. But the process took years, and I had almost given up at the end. We had moved to a second refugee camp by then, and the food was in really short supply, shelter too. It wasn’t a good feeling.”

However, when he was in ninth grade, Osman and his brother, along with his brother’s wife and two children, became part of the less than 1 percent of the global refugee population (which the UN reported has, for the first time in the post-World War II era, exceeded 50 million people) to resettle in a third country (refugees often settle in a country other than their homeland after fleeing violence or political strife, though they’re frequently denied citizenship in these countries). For the first time ever, Osman boarded a plane, flying from the refugee camp to Nairobi before leaving for Newark, New Jersey. Once in the U.S., Osman and his family made their way to Grand Rapids, where he has lived ever since.

“When I first moved here, to Grand Rapids, there were volunteers who came to our house and brought us stuff, and we said, ‘OK, we’re not afraid anymore; these people are here to help us,” he says. “People welcomed us, brought us some food, clothing — everything that we didn’t have. We were really happy; my family was really happy.

“I felt welcomed; I felt like I was home,” Osman continues. “People were nice. At the schools I went to, the students and the teachers were really humble and welcoming.”

Now, Osman is double majoring in international relations and medicine — he’s hoping to provide healthcare to refugees across the world one day — and, at the same time, is working at the West Michigan Refugee Education and Cultural Center, where he helps to resettle refugees much like himself and his family.

“The people who are coming here are forced to; it’s not a personal choice,” Osman says. “It’s important to welcome refugees.”

The Grand Rapidian continues, saying he was particularly hard hit when he heard Snyder’s statement regarding refugees.

“This really hit me, when they said they don’t want to welcome refugees,” he says. “These people, they want to live freely. They have no clothing, no shelter, nothing. They can’t go home; all their homes are destroyed. They have nothing.”

How Grand Rapidians can help

Kragt and Van Noord say there are numerous opportunities for Grand Rapidians and other West Michigan residents to help refugees in their community.

Both West Michigan Refugee Education and Cultural Center and the Bethany Christian Services are looking for volunteers. To find out more about volunteering at the West Michigan group, which is predominantly looking for tutors, you can visit their website here, and to learn about volunteering at Bethany, you can visit the organization’s website here. Bethany has a variety of volunteer opportunities, including for groups, such as a church, school or community organization, to help sponsor a family, meaning they assist in furnishing their apartment, welcoming the family to the country, and providing support for the family’s initial days in the United States.

“We have a need for mentors, tutors, those who will help with transport, those who will help in setting up apartments,” Van Noord says. “And we have a need for refugee foster parents.”

Kraft emphasizes that residents can also push their government representatives to be open to Michigan receiving refugees.

“Right now policy issues are a big thing,” Kragt says, “Calling your representatives, telling them you support refugees is helpful. Donate to groups working with refugees. Because refugees are forced to migrate, they tend to the be the immigrants with the least amount of resources… But once they get their feet under them, they thrive”

Donations to Bethany Christian Services are also welcome, Van Noord says. The group is looking for new or gently used items to furnish people’s homes. Additionally, an anonymous donor has given $350,000 in matching funds to Bethany Christian Services, which will assist refugees — particularly those from the Middle East, Van Noord says.

Even if you don’t have time or money to give, Osman says a wave and a “hello” can go a long way.

“Be human, like they are, and welcome them,” Osman says. “Being a refugee isn’t something that anyone wants to be.”
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