For many, the word refugee invokes thoughts and images of suffering people in far off nations. Many people don’t realize that refugees from all over the world come to Lansing to start a new life away from the persecution they faced in their homelands. After being relocated, these families still face many challenges such as adjusting to a new area and society. Thanks to organizations and volunteers in the greater Lansing area, these people and their families are able to relocate successfully and start new lives.
[refugee]The way that refugees are relocated to Lansing is a complicated process. Refugee Services/St. Vincent Home is a faction of Catholic Social Services in Lansing. This organization helps relocate most of the refugees that arrive in Lansing. Mary Flores is the resettlement director at Refugee Services. She explained that the resettlement process begins when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees locates and labels people as refugees and recommends them for resettlement. UNHCR then gives the names of the refugees and their families to the United States where the names are divided between 10 different volunteer agencies called Volags. Volags then distribute the names of the refugees to smaller agencies that work for them.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is one of the ten Volags and Refugee Services of Lansing works to resettle many of the refugees that USCCB receives.
Refugee Services may have anywhere from two weeks to two days notice of the pending arrival of a refugee or family, Flores said. During this time, the housing department of Refugee Services works to find a house or apartment in the community for the person or family to live. Then, a resource supervisor is in charge of furnishing the home with furniture and basic essentials for cooking and cleaning. When the refugees arrive, an interpreter picks them up at the airport and takes them to their new home.
Flores estimates that there are 13,000 refugees that have been resettled in Lansing. She said that currently half of the refugees coming to Lansing are from Cuba. Many other refugees in this area are from Liberia, Somalia, and some from Sudan. The city of Lansing has low cost housing and available entry level jobs and the Lansing community is very welcoming, Flores said. The combination of available jobs, low cost of living, and a friendly community is the main reason why the capital is one of the most popular relocation areas in Michigan.
However, a refugee’s struggles are far from over once they have been relocated. Barry Stein is a political science professor and an expert on refugees. He says that all refugees face challenges when they are relocated. “You’re moving [them] to a society where nothing is familiar”, Stein said. Relocating can be a big shock and it may take a lot of adjustment for the refugees to feel comfortable. In Lansing, volunteers in organizations like Refugee Services of Lansing help to make the transition a little easier.[boy]
Maggie Corser is an international relations sophomore who has been volunteering for Refugee Services for over a year. She was introduced to the volunteer program when she joined MSU’s amnesty international chapter which adopted a newly arrived refugee family, the Omari family. Makai Abdul-Kahlik Omari and her eight children, whose ages range from five to 19, are originally from Afghanistan but now live in Lansing. Each week, Maggie and at least two other volunteers visit the Omari’s home.
“The volunteers that Refugee Services provides are there to help the family feel adjusted”, Corser said. “We’re there to be their friends, introduce them to the US with little ‘field trips’ like going to the bank and shopping at Meijers”. Interaction with volunteers and visits to places in the local community helps to ease the relocation experience.
However, becoming familiar with their surroundings is not the only adjustment that refugee families must face. Often, conflicts arise within the family and between the family members. “Relocation is very difficult for adults, but the children will take to the culture almost immediately”, Stein said. This can lead to problems between the generations within a family concerning the values and traditions from their homeland versus the different customs of the new society. “The kids want to be free and American”, Professor Stein explained. This is something the adults are not used to and, in some cases, may not agree with.
A child’s speedy adjustment to a new culture can also be beneficial. Oftentimes, a “reversal of roles” takes place within a family. This happens when the parents begin to rely on the children’s quick adaptation to help ease the entire family’s transition to the area.
Young children are naturally quicker at learning and adapting to a new language. Working with the Omari family, Maggie observed that the English skills of the younger children surpass those of their older siblings and are at a much higher level than their mother’s. “The language is what helps [the kids] adjust to the culture the most”, Corser said.
As a result of their superior language skills, children may need to act as informal translators for their parents. With this responsibility, the children play a vital role in initiating their parents into the foreign cultures and helping the entire family adjust to the relocation.
Once they have arrived, the children of refugee families are enrolled in public schools. In order to help them succeed, one of the main focuses of volunteers is helping them improve their English. Even though children are faster at learning languages then their parents, becoming fluent may take a lot of time and practice. For this reason, the majority of the time that Maggie spends at the Omari’s house is spent huddled around the coffee table in the living room helping the children with their homework and working to improve their English.
Once a refugee reaches the age of 18 they are no longer eligible for government financial support and are expected to find a job and begin work. “The goal of refugee resettlement established by the US government is self sufficiency in six months”, said Flores. To help the refugees and their families reach this goal, Refugee Services has an employment department that has established strong relationships with employers in the community and works to place the working age refugees with jobs.
Flores commented on how great a task it is for the refugees to become self sufficient in such a relatively short amount of time. “It’s asking a lot of them, but they do it”, she said.
Refugees’ success in their new homes is a combination of their adjustment and hard work and also the work of organizations such as Refugee Services and its strong volunteer group. Flores said Refugee Services is always looking for volunteers and mentors.
“Spending time with the refugees can be invaluable experience,” she added. It is possible to mentor only two hours a week and there is no need to know another language.”

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