The world hit a grim milestone this year. There are now more than 60 million refugees worldwide. That's the highest number ever recorded. The U.S. will accept 85,000 of them in 2016.
The global humanitarian crisis has led to a heated political debate in Michigan, which is one of the top states for refugee resettlement in the country. But advocates say that debate often overlooks the benefits that refugees bring to the communities where they settle.
Ingham County accepts more refugees per capita than any other county in Michigan. And so that's where I headed to see what those benefits might look like.
I meet Alphonsine Busabusa at St. Vincent's Catholic Charities, which resettles refugees in the mid-Michigan area. She has lived in Lansing since she came to Michigan as a refugee from Burundi in 2004.
When she left Zambia to fly to the United States with her three children, she had to fit everything she needed to start a new life into a 50 pound suitcase. She brought some clothes, pictures of her family, her Bible, and her high school diploma.
When she unpacked that suitcase and settled into her new furnished apartment in downtown Lansing, Busabusa says there was a sense of relief. She and her kids were finally safe.
But as soon as refugees arrive in the U.S., the clock starts ticking. In Michigan, federal money for resettlement services only lasts around three months. In other states, it can be as few as 30 days.
“Right now what we do is we give very little resources for very short period of time with this hope that this laissez-faire approach will be beneficial. That refugees won't be coddled, they'll have to quickly get themselves going," says Stephanie Nawyn, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Michigan State University.
Refugees are required to start looking for jobs right away. That means learning English usually takes a back seat to bringing in an income. Nawyn says that delays a refugee family's integration into their new community. “How are you going to feel a part of your neighborhood if you can’t speak to your neighbors? How are you going to be a full participant in your child’s education if you can’t communicate with the teacher?”
The Refugee Development Center in Lansing is one of the organizations trying to bridge the gap between refugees and their new community. It provides year-round services like English classes, after-school programs, and access to a social worker.
Today, kids from the Center’s GLOBE summer camp program have traded in their shorts and t-shirts for business casual wear. Groups of campers stand in front of poster boards pitching ideas for social enterprises. Hatangimana Willybaphos -- or Willy for short -- explains his plan for a fleet of mobile health clinics to the volunteer judges. "It’s basically a clinic for disablity people that don’t have transportation to get to hospitals," he tells them. "It's going to be affordable for everyone. And also we're going to have interpreters there." The judges seem impressed as they listen to Willy's ambitious plans and write down notes on their clipboards.
Stephanie Nawyn says a lot of the refugees coming to Michigan have the same can-do spirit as Willy. Take for example, she says, the wave of Burundian refugees who came to Lansing in 2007. Few of them had much education. Some had lived in refugee camps in Tanzania for decades.
When they got here, they struggled to find affordable housing for their large families. But then, they had an idea. “One figured out that HUD was selling dilapidated houses for a dollar," Nawyn says. One of the Burundians who worked as an interpreter had previously been a carpenter in Tanzania. So the Burundians pooled their resources. They bought several foreclosed houses. And after a lot of sweat equity, they turned them into livable spaces for families in their community.
Nawyn says that’s a good example of how harnessing the skills that refugees bring with them could help revive blighted neighborhoods and strengthen local economies. And she says with a little help, they could do even more. In Canada, for example, the government helps refugees quickly get the credentials they need to work in jobs that match their skills. “And then instead of having this doctor driving a cab around Toronto," Nawyn says, "they have a doctor who is working in a hospital, working in a clinic.”
Alphonsine Busabusa now works to help St. Vincent’s resettle other refugees. And when new Burundians arrive, she goes above and beyond to help them settle in. She tells them to call her day or night. She shows them the bus routes, and even goes with them to employee training. Busabusa says she is thankful her children don’t have to run anymore. And now, she tells them it’s their responsibility to reach back and help pull the next person up.