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Michigan refugee services in danger of losing $800,000

May Anayi is an Iraqi refugee now working for St. Vincent Catholic Charities, a Lansing refugee
St. Vincent Catholic Charities

May Anayi was forced to flee her home in Baghdad after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. She’s a teacher. But her certificate is not valid in the United States.

She says finding a new career in Michigan seemed almost impossible. She had trouble just figuring out how to cross the street. She says she once stood for 15 minutes waiting for the crossing signal to change, not realizing she had to push a button first.

“And then this American boy, he was running,” said Anayi. “He pushed that thing, and then it turned green. I looked at my sister and said, ‘Oh my goodness, everyone noticed that we are refugees.”

Anayi would eventually get the knowledge, skills, and cultural help she needed to make Lansing home for her and her kids thanks to St. Vincent Catholic Charities. The organization provides orientations, as well as programs to help refugees find places to live, get jobs, get health care, and adjust to the culture.

It is one of many similar community organizations that help resettle the thousands of refugees that come to Michigan every year. That population continues to grow due to recent conflicts in the Middle East.

But organizations like St. Vincent could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars this year in funding to help those refugees. The federal government has diverted that money to help pay for the recent influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America.

St. Vincent Director of Refugee Services Judy Harris says the organization stands to lose $165,000.

“It will significantly reduce what we’re able to provide to refugees,” said Harris. “It’s going to be much more straight forward. Off the plane, housing, quick orientation, get you a job, and really nothing else much more intensive than that.”

Harris says all they can do is hope Congress acts to restore that funding before the new budget year begins in less than three weeks. She says they are already moving forward with cuts to their programs.

Gov. Rick Snyder says the state should do more to help refugees. He says many come to Michigan with valuable career skills that are in high demand. Snyder says too many end up working low-skill, low-wage jobs that are far beneath their qualifications.

But it appears no plan has been set in stone.

“I have not had any conversations with the governor’s office,” said Al Horn, director of refugee services under the Michigan Department of Human Services.

Horn says the programs are federally funded and federally regulated. That means the money and programs available are not easy to change. But he says his department has tried to focus more on recertifying refugees for high-skilled jobs. He applauds the governor for making that a priority.

“Refugees really want to come in and be productive,” said Horn. “They want to take care of their families. They have a lot of skills. They’re survivors. And they really bring a lot to Michigan.”

Horn says Michigan stands to lose a total of about $800,000 this year due to funding being diverted to help deal with the unaccompanied minors. That is compared to a total of about $25 million that comes through his office annually.

Horn says the programs that would likely be hit the hardest include after school programs and tutoring for refugee children.

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