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Surge of 1,000 refugees arrive in Michigan this summer

Syrian refugee children in Jordan enjoy a concert.
Syrian refugee children in Jordan enjoy a concert.

The pace of refugees resettling in the state has picked up this summer, with more than 1,000 arriving in just the last couple months.

About half those were Syrian, according to the State Department, many of whom are coming to the Detroit area and Southeast Michigan.

In Grand Rapids, meanwhile, Samaritas refugee volunteer coordinator Troy Howley says they’re seeing a big increase in people from Congolese refugee camps.

That’s partly, he says, because the government tries to place refugees where they might have some family, friends or other tie – even if that tie is just a person who came from the same massive refugee camp.  

“For some reason, we’ve just heard that there are a few different Congolese refugee camps, where Grand Rapids is the largest – by a huge margin – is the largest ‘tie’ location for refugees from those camps.”  

More than 400 Congolese refugees have arrived in Michigan since October, according to the State Department’s numbers.

Credit Flickr/TKnoxB
Congolese refugee in a camp in Western Uganda

“Now the reality is, in theory, it would be beneficial if the tie cases were people who’d already been here for a couple of years and they’re already established. But really, it’s like, 'Oh here’s someone else you met in the refugee camp who came over three months ahead of you.'So it can’t really work out where … they’re all set.”

Settling Iraqi or Syrian refugees, Howley says, is often a comparatively simple process.

“For example: we all have smart phones. Well, pretty much everyone of the Syrian or Iraqis who’ve come over, have had smart phones in the past. The technology component, the transportation component – much of what goes into our daily life is really similar to what goes on in [their] daily life until chaos ensues.”

But with rural Congolese clients, he says, the culture gap can be far wider.

“We’re explaining what you can and can’t put in the toilet, for example. Or, if you’ve grown up your entire life cooking over a fire in your home … with a dirt floor, for example … if you’re [now] in an apartment complex in West Michigan and you take something off the stove, if you put it on the floor, you’re going to damage the floor. Even small things like that are things that our case workers have to educate our clients on.”

Another big challenge has been housing, Howley says, in a city with one of the lowest rental vacancy rates in the country.

Credit Flickr/European Commission
Congolese refugees in a refugee camp

And it’s not like refugees arrive here with pay stubs and a credit report ready for landlords to review.

“We’ve been trying to create new relationships with landlords who are will to say, hey, this is different than what I’m used to,” Howley says.  “It’s been very, very difficult finding affordable housing.”

Meanwhile, they’re also trying to be “creative,” asking more families in West Michigan to open up their homes to temporarily host refugees.

Howley says if people are interested in offering housing help – ideally even landlords willing to pitch in – that would be great. They’re also looking for “cultural mentors” who’ll spend time with refugees in their community, practicing English, or  teaching someone how to get on the bus.

Monthly bus passes are also helpful donations, Howley says, as well as copies of the Oxford Picture Dictionary that can help refugees learn English.

Meanwhile the steady pace of refugees is expected to stay strong the next couple months, or possibly even pick up. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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