Ingham County Expecting Hundreds of Refugees - Here's How to Help

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Friday, December 4, 2015, 12:52 pm
Ann Nichols

For Judi Harris and her staff at St. Vincent Catholic Charities’ Refugee Services, supporting refugees in the greater Lansing area isn’t about politics. “This is a labor of love” she says. “This is serving our faith. This is feeding our souls.”

Refugees have been in the news lately, particularly those leaving Syria. Public response has ranged from compassion and outrage at their situation to concern about possible ties to terrorist groups. Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder was the first of several U.S. governors to propose a moratorium or “pause” in offering aid and asylum to refugees coming from Syria, despite the fact that decisions about immigration, naturalization and deportation are made not by individual states but by the federal government.

This week, the City of East Lansing’s Council passed a resolution welcoming Syrian refugees. Harris says that Refugee Services “very much appreciate that East Lansing is a very welcoming and compassionate community. Greater Lansing, and Michigan in general, has a long history of being welcoming to immigrants and refugees. We believe that members of this community are not only wanting to help the vulnerable, but they also understand that refugee resettlement is also beneficial to our community and our economy.”

Between now and September of 2016, as many as 735 refugees are expected to come to the Lansing area, 100 of them from Syria. They will need help with setting up households, learning English, finding jobs, and learning to navigate an unfamiliar culture.

Harris, Director of Refugee Services for SVCC, wants local citizens to know that there are many ways to be part of the process. She also reminds that while Syrian refugees are in the news and on many people’s minds lately, there are many other places in the world that are so dangerous that people are willing to give up everything familiar and find their way to the United States. She cites Sudan and Burma, and says that The Republic of Congo is the most dangerous place for women in the world right now.

Her remarks were echoed this week by East Lansing resident Bob Pratt, who spoke at Council during public comments on the welcoming resolution. Pratt, who is retired from working as Fire Marshall for East Lansing, told Council the appreciated the resolution and its intent, and noted there are refugees coming not only from Syria but from South America, Tibet, and West Africa.

According to Harris, “Our clients all have similar needs. They need to be shown around the area. They need help with transportation to work, school, ESL classes, grocery store, worship, laundromats, etc. They need help learning to drive and buying cars. They may need help with English or tutoring their children in school. They can be guided to higher education or training services. Mostly, they need friends. They are starting a whole new life here so they need people and support and roots to stabilize them so that they can move forward.”

Refugees are likely to stay in Ingham County, because Refugee Services has a strong relationship with the Ingham County DHHS, Ingham County Health Department, and Capital Area Michigan Works. Harris says the agency “usually place people in Lansing because the housing is most affordable,” but that “if they have family in other areas like East Lansing or Haslett,  they may be housed closer to their family, but may need assistance covering the costs of rent.”

Once in the United States, all refugees receive a small resettlement allowance from the Department of State, typically a lump sum of $925.00 to $1225.00. All costs to set up a house come from the resettlement allowance, which is why Harris’s staff “tries to do as much as we can with donations so that the families can use their resettlement allowance for food, diapers, and other necessities. We collect furniture and household goods from the community to set up housing for new arrivals.”

Families and individuals are also eligible to receive benefits for the first few months until they get a job. Harris explains that Refugee Services has “a special expedited employment program called ‘Match Grant’ that covers basic necessities like rent and utilities for new arrivals so that they do not access public assistance. Once they start working, this assistance ends.” All refugees who meet the economic requirements are eligible for public assistance such as subsidized housing, WIC, Bridge Cards, and energy assistance.

If you want to help, Harris suggests that the best way is to connect with Refugee Services, which has “a very organized program for volunteers that provides training and orientation to have the most impact in a safe environment for everyone.”

Details, including how to get started, are here. SVCC maintains an ongoing collections of new and gently used furniture (except for beds) and household goods that can be dropped off at their office during working hours. Newcomers are generally referred to thrift stores for clothing because the charity doesn’t have the space to sort clothing. Donations of money for the period before a first paycheck period are welcomed.

Refugee Services also provides an employment program that serves all newly arrived refugees for up to five years after arrival. Most new arrivals start working within the first few months, and if anyone knows of job openings, they are encouraged to contact Harris or her staff as the agency works directly with employers to help place people.

Safe and affordable housings is also a serious need. This is a significant challenge, and Refugee Services works closely with local landlords to encourage them to keep up their properties and also works with their clients to teach them to take care of their new homes.

In addition to donations of money, household goods or connections to jobs or housing, Refugee Services seeks donations of human connection. “We have a mentoring program if anyone wants to be matched with a new family to show them around town, how to use the laundromat, library, farmer’s market, etc.” explains Harris.

In the end, the greatest gift to refugees from any country may be an extended hand of friendship in an alien land.

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