Look into the eyes of Levi Tarley Doe and feel even your roughest corner become smooth. Illuminated by the glaring computer screen before him, the lines of Doe’s face draw a map of life on the move. His gentle words are soft-spoken but create a scattered montage of disenchantment, gratitude, adjustment and foreseeable success. His hands, accidentally arranged on the keyboard, are weathered but move like a well-oiled machine. Doe’s dark pants, dark winter coat and dark winter hat make it seem as if he lives in a world tinted one shade dimmer than normal. But that changes upon the emergence of his slight but glowing smile – the kind that makes you melt. It tells of a life moving toward stability rather than struggle.
\”Here [in the U.S.] you can live a better life,\” Doe said. \”Once you focus your mind on education everything is fine.\”
Doe’s turbulent life as a refugee began when he left Liberia, his country of origin located on Africa’s west coast and moved to Guinea, a country also on the west coast bordered by countries such as Senegal, Mali and Sierra Leone. Five months ago, Doe’s mother, who had previously left Guinea and who had arrived in Lansing, sent for him to join her in building a new life on an unfamiliar continent. On June 7, 2006, Doe escaped a life of distinct inferiority, being falsely accused of crimes, and general disrespect as a refugee in Guinea by coming to Lansing. However, as a refugee arriving in America, Doe was faced with adapting to a completely new way of life and the countless resulting obstacles such as learning English, finding a job, meeting friends and assimilating into the education system. [delgado]
Doe’s story is not unlike those of the estimated 13,000 to 20,000 refugees who currently reside in Lansing. Coping with a new life in America proves to be a daunting, shocking and sometimes disheartening task only made better by a supportive and welcoming community. The Lansing Refugee Development Center has provided this kind of community by educating refugees and supporting them through the ups and downs of creating a fulfilling life in America.
Lansing’s large refugee population has been due to its designation by the federal government as a “preferred community” for settling refugees and consequently has become known as a refugee “hot spot,” according to Vincent Delgado, coordinator of the Lansing Refugee Development Center. Lansing’s 30 year history of settling refugees, its job opportunities for people learning English in places like the state government, MSU and General Motors, its low rent, and a good transportation system all contribute to its status as a preferred community for refugees. But Delgado believes it is ultimately Lansing’s commitment to a cause that makes a difference. “I think it is because the federal government knows how professional and committed Lansing is to welcoming newcomers,” Delgado said. “Case in point — the Refugee Development Center is the only high-tech educational drop-in center for refugees of its kind in the nation.”
Since its opening in May 2002, the Refugee Development Center has worked to educate anywhere from 100 to 160 refugees who pass through its doors everyday on all aspects of American life and help them develop a range of skills necessary for a successful life in Lansing. It’s most popular programs include after-school tutoring for teenagers (60-80 attend daily), as well as literacy education. Computers and the Internet provide a way for refugees to learn how to navigate in a computer-dependent world, as well as learn from computer programs about topics such as citizenship. A driving simulator is frequented by adults learning to drive and the center’s extensive video library offers general education concerning topics such as how to budget, how to prepare for a job interview or how to cope with bullying. “We kind of grow up learning all of these things in the U.S.,” Delgado said. “They need to know all of this right away.”
Although many refugees come to America hoping to create a new life from a troubled past, their arrival does not signify the end of hardship, as many refugees imagine. Rosy perceptions of what life will be like are quickly crushed when it becomes clear that money does not grow on trees and a perfect life is not instantaneous. Culture shock is part of a refugee’s experience and for 20 percent of refugees it results in clinical depression, according to Delgado. “People are quickly let down when they realize they are not going to work in the big buildings unless they are cleaning them,” Delgado said. “Everyone is excited about bus passes until they realize they need a car.”
Preconceived images and ideas of America may also shock refugees when they arrive. “Kids think America is very different from what they thought it would be like,” elementary education sophomore and Development Center volunteer, Katie Raftery, said. “They had an idea of an America that was too ideal.”
[teach2]Massah Lumeh, a self-assured 16 year-old girl born in Liberia, but most recently from Sierra Leone, explained that the way houses are organized, the amount of subjects offered in school, being surrounded by English and even the way light looked were among the aspects of everyday life she found most shocking upon arriving in the U.S. one year ago. At first, traffic patterns and literacy as a necessity to everyday life were difficult for Doe to cope with. “If you don’t know how to read or write, you will be lost,” Doe said.
Some aspects of American life have seemed to happily surprise refugees. The availability of food was unexpected for Lumeh. Freedom to move around from place to place without restriction and free access to computers at the Development Center are aspects of life in America that Doe most enjoys. “You had to pay money in my country, but school here is free,” Lumeh said. “You can go to school, then go to work, and get money.” Gloria Wamah, 13, and originally from Ghana, agreed with Lumeh, saying the public education system is what she found most different about life in Lansing compared to life in Ghana.
“In my country, if you don’t have money, you can’t get an education. Here there is more opportunity and more encouragement,” Doe said. As a first-year accounting student at Lansing Community College, the 20-year-old plans to find a career in business management. Doe’s excitement for education is consistent with most other refugees who come through the center, and is easily seen in the after-school tutoring sessions that leave the center packed with volunteers and refugees and last into the evening.
“The younger refugees who come most appreciate the tutoring,” said Shannon Scott, an interdisciplinary social science and political science junior, a former Development Center intern and a current volunteer. “The American school system places students based on age and not capabilities so they may not even be able to read the word \’biology\’, but are placed in it because they are 15 years old.”
Despite difficulties in assimilating refugees into the American education system, the Development Center has high expectations for its participants. “Our goal for refugee teens is for them to go to college. Our goal for parents is to find sustainable jobs,” Delgado said.
The support and encouragement the Development Center offers refugees has been vital to surviving and recovering from culture shock. “Eventually most people negotiate their way out of culture shock. They pick and choose what they like of American culture and retain their way of life,” Delgado said. While moving to America is altering, Delgado sees refugees “not changing their identity, but adding to it.”
A change in identity is an experience younger refugees tend to relate to more than adult refugees. “My situation has changed, my way of living has changed, but my identity has not,” Doe said.
However, 16-year-old Massah Lumeh said she feels like a different person since moving to the U.S. Being surrounded by the English language and adopting it as her spoken language has had a huge impact on her identity as well as her new friends at school. Lumeh even noticed her physical appearance being altered. “The cold changes my skin color,” she said.
Not only are teenaged refugees faced with assimilating into the merciless social norms of junior high and high school, but they must also cope with adjusting to an entirely new way of life, and adopting a new “Americanized” identity is a survival tactic. “There are many young refugees that refuse to even be acknowledged as refugees. It also hard to see young refugees know every lyric 50 Cent ever wrote, but not be able to do their English homework. Sometimes they just try so hard fit into Lansing public schools they lose a lot of who they are,” said Scott.
No matter how much they think they’ve changed, refugees like Doe, Wamah, and Lumeh have ambitious plans for their new lives. Wamah plans on becoming a doctor, and Lumeh wants to go to college and play basketball. After Doe finishes his degree, he may move somewhere else in the country and get a job or he may stay put, but he is happy to have three more years in school before he finds out where his life will lead him.
Delgado holds the only paying position at the Development Center; the 100 to 120 other people who put in time are all volunteers and 80 percent of them are MSU students. Delgado said, “Without MSU students this would not exist.\”
The volunteers have seen their time spent at the center as inspiring and eye-opening. “All of the kids who come to get tutored are so welcoming, and they don’t judge anyone else based on race or economics,” education junior Mackenzie Rutenbar said. Like Raftery, Rutenbar found out about the Development Center through her TE 250 class where it was a recommended location for service learning.
“When you see the look on their faces when they understand something, you know you’re helping to progress their education,” Raftery said.
While the number of refugees who use the Development Center everyday could be overwhelming, it only encourages Scott to provide more service to the community: “The most valuable lesson I learned is that there will always be people that are in need of help. Always.\”
To receive more information about the Refugee Development Center or to volunteer contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.