The United States will admit a maximum of 80,000 refugees in 2009, according to the Cultural Orientation Research Center Web site, and many of these will end up in Lansing.
Each of the world’s regions is assigned a limited number of slots that can be filled with people meeting the U.N.’s standard for refugees. Those same people, according to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, cannot return to their native countries for “fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
About half of the 65,602 refugees admitted so far this year come from Iraq, Bhutan or Burma. In 2008, the maximum number was also set at 80,000, up from 70,000 the previous two years. Only about 60,000 refugees were actually admitted, though. The number of refugees to be admitted is determined annually by the President in consultation with Congress, according to the Department of Homeland Security Web site.
Anneli Lukas, Volunteer coordinator for the Refugee Development Center in Lansing, said in a post on the group’s Web site that refugees are only eligible to move to a third country if the country they flee to does not allow them to get jobs and integrate into society. About 1 percent of those who can neither integrate nor return to their home countries are selected by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to settle in a third country. Only about 20 countries frequently accept refugees, and the United States is the only country to accept unaccompanied refugees under the age of 18. These refugees are placed in foster care after being admitted to the United States.
Diane Baird, refugee foster care program manager for Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, which provides services to refugees, said refugees are identified by U.N. aid workers after they escape their home countries. “If they’re coming from Burma for example … typically the kids have left on foot or been smuggled in a vehicle across the border to Thailand or Malaysia,” Baird said. “[In Malaysia] those young people have typically been living in the jungle, trying to survive, or living in some kind of urban setting,” Baird said.
After refugees are identified for resettlement, they undergo an interview with the Department of Homeland Security and are screened for health problems. Unaccompanied underage refugees are then placed with one of 16 programs, taking into account the children’s ages and any special needs.
Michigan is one of only three states with two refugee foster care programs. One is based in Lansing and the other in Grand Rapids. Lukas said a total of 400 to 700 refugees settle in the Lansing area each year, and more than 10,000 are already living in mid-Michigan. “Lansing is a destination for many refugees due to its status as a free case city, a home for refugees who don’t already have family living in America,” Lukas said. “It is a mid-sized city, therefore the cost of living isn’t too high, with adequate bus lines, and an already-diverse population.”
Young refugees in Lansing have two programs to help them settle into life in the United States: Lutheran Social Services of Michigan (LSSM) and the Refugee Development Center. Diane Baird, refugee foster care program manager for LSSM, said it has contracts through the state and federal governments to provide foster care to unaccompanied refugee youth, in addition to holding social activities and life-skills classes. The Refugee Development Center also has leadership and extracurricular activities, as well as an after-school program to help young refugees with their homework.
LSSM began in 1909 as Missionsbund, German for “Mission Federation,” a group dedicated to social services. Missionsbund was incorporated in 1934, and under several different names, expanded its mission to working with children, elderly and new immigrants. In 1959 it merged with another group in Saginaw and took its current name. The group is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and has more than 70 programs in 43 Michigan cities dealing with issues like foster care, adoption, homelessness, elderly and disabled.
Baird said more than 100 refugee children are currently in foster care in the Lansing area. Another 10 children who have aged out of foster care are taking advantage of an education and training voucher. The voucher provides support services and $5,000 per year toward each child’s higher education. “All but three of those are teenagers,” Baird said. Most of the refugee youth in foster care are ages 15 to 18. Each refugee child has a case manager, similar to those in state foster care, and access to a bilingual therapist for trauma they suffer from said Baird. Some were abused, and others ran away from being forced into military groups. “Sometimes it was ‘I witnessed my entire family being murdered,’” Baird said. “They’re amazingly resilient.”
LSSM offers independent living classes that teach financial skills, how to rent an apartment and basic dos and don’ts of American culture for older teenagers. It also offers sports and social activities. “The one language they seem to speak, kids from 10 different countries, is soccer,” Baird said, adding the Lansing youth have a rivalry with the refugees resettled in Grand Rapids.
The youth in foster care came from a variety of backgrounds. Some sought asylum after fleeing their home countries and others came as part of refugee families, only to later face abuse or neglect. Baird said about 80 percent of the children her group serves fit the definition of a refugee. Current refugees came from Burma, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Botswana, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Some of the non-refugee children they serve were brought to the United States under false pretenses and then abused. Others are in foster care temporarily while the federal government decides whether to allow them to stay or to return them to their home countries. Typically, those children are Central American and attempted to cross the border to get away from abuse by their governments or families. Less than 3 percent stay, Baird said. The rest are returned to their families or deported. “The U.S. detains 5,000 to 7,000 children a year through that process,” Baird said.
The Refugee Development Center also serves refugees in the Lansing area. Started in 2002 by Christ Lutheran Church, its approximately 350 volunteers now provide English language training to more than 200 refugees. The center also provides driving and life-skills training, and has a youth program for more than 200 refugee students. The center’s director Shirin Timms said it runs an after-school program for unaccompanied refugee youth and the children of refugee families at its building, 122 S. Pennsylvania Ave., and at Eastern High School in Lansing. The program provides help with homework and schedules leadership and extracurricular activities. The center works with the resettlement agencies, the School District of Lansing and Michigan State University, which provides volunteers.
Linda Gjokaj, a sociology doctoral student at MSU, worked with 10 students at the Refugee Development Center as part of a project examining their perceptions of family and how they adjusted to living in a new culture. The students came from Sudan and Liberia, with some spending time in refugee camps in Ivory Coast. Gjokaj said they had been in the United States for several years and were now in their early teens. “There were a lot of things that were common with other teenagers,” she said. “What was distinct with them was their view of family as a source of support in a new culture.” She said the refugee children she interviewed had a broad definition of family, including people who were very helpful to them but weren’t blood relatives.
Baird said LSSM is looking for mentors and tutors, because many young refugees did not have the chance to go to school, and those who did generally did not get the same education in their home countries as an American student does. Mentors do not need any previous knowledge of the refugee youth’s cultures, Baird said. “We can train people on the cultural needs of these kids,” she said. “We’re looking for people who have patience [and] a little bit of time each week to give to a kid, who are good role models, who are flexible.”
Gjokaj said most of the children were eager to talk about their experiences. “Some of them did talk about being in a conflict zone, or being in a refugee camp, or having family being separated,” Gjokaj said. She said they also talked about their hopes when coming to the United States not only to avoid wars, but to find increased opportunities. “They had positive views of the future, and of the present,” Gjokaj said.