Michigan rolls out welcome mat for Afghan refugees

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By EMERSON WIGAND
Capital News Service

LANSINGMichigan aid organizations are scrambling to provide housing and services for 1,300 Afghan refugees they’ve pledged to resettle.

“These are really nice, hardworking and kind people,” said Kurt Richter, a Michigan State University associate professor who helped evacuate more than 70 Afghan staff and scholars from the country. “I would welcome them as my neighbors.” 

And they also can be strong contributors to the state’s economy, said Richter, who ran the university’s Grain Research and Innovation Project in Afghanistan. The MSU refugees are in Albania where they await transport to the United States.

Also waiting are about 60,000 refugees who were evacuated to U.S. military bases for resettlement following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, said Judi Harris, the director of refugee development in St. Vincent Catholic Charities, a faith-based nonprofit in Lansing that has pledged to resettle 300 Afghan refugees in Ingham County. 

Forty have been settled by the group so far, Harris said. The organization has also received the names of future arrivals awaiting transport to Michigan from the bases.

“We have over 100 now that have been referred to us,” Harris said. “We’re just waiting for the flight booking notices.”

Organizations working on resettlement are tackling housing for the new arrivals, Harris said. For future arrivals, permanent options may be limited. They may need temporary housing in hotels.

The Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity has secured $500,000 to assist in these costs. The funding came from an existing Michigan State Housing Development Authority fund for rent assistance open to noncitizens. 

Such support is important as resettlement can be expensive and require lots of work, said the Rev. Bill Danaher, of Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills. It costs about $57,000 a year to support a family of seven. Most of these costs are handled by community organizations.

“The government only does so much,” Danaher said. “We know there will be significant costs despite the government funding we are receiving.”

Danaher is a board member of Samaritas, a faith-based social service agency that pledged to support 350 refugees. It has 87 years of refugee resettlement experience and works with other resettlement groups across the state.

Beyond housing, it is important to find the refugees a welcoming environment, Danaher said. That’s why there are efforts to help settle them near other Afghan families.

One family was recently settled in West Michigan by Samaritas, Danaher said. That appeal is because of existing Afghan communities, much like Lansing

Lansing has the largest Afghan refugee population in the state, Rep. Mari Manoogian, D-Birmingham, said in a recent House committee hearing on her resolution to welcome the refugees.

This welcome should not be limited to communities with Afghan populations, Danaher said. These refugees will be resettled across the state.

That’s why Manoogian’s resolution, which the House adopted Oct. 14, is important, he said. It can help address apprehension some Michigan residents may have to Afghan refugees.

“Your voice matters,” Danaher testified during a hearing on the resolution. “The state of Michigan needs to say that these refugees are welcome.”

Despite the intense vetting, some people might have unfounded fears regarding Afghan refugees, Danaher said. Therefore these state level efforts help support work at the community level.

“Representation is a two-way street,” Danaher said. “Politicians not only represent their districts to Michigan, they represent Michigan to their districts.”

Manoogian said that is part of the commitment made to Afghans, many of whom risked their lives for American servicemembers, including 70,000 Michigan residents.

“I support this resolution with all my soul,” Tripp Adams, a veteran said at the hearing.  “This is a debt of honor. We as a country, committed to this.”

The resolution signals the warm welcome Afghan refugees deserve, said Jessica Garrels, MSU’s program manager for its Grain Project.

State support like the resolution would also benefit St. Vincent’s community outreach, Harris said. It helps to be able to refer to legislator support for resolutions like those when answering questions from the community. 

Welcoming Afghan refugees to the state is not just the right thing to do, but the smart one, Danaher said. Refugees in Michigan have generated about $200 million of new businesses and jobs in the economy. 

Three-quarters of refugees are self-sufficient within six months of resettlement, Danaher said. It normally takes 10 volunteers to help host a family for six months, he said. 

Samaritas is looking for volunteers to help, he said. Danaher said he hopes support from the state and legislators will help bring attention and energy among Michigan residents.

Michigan has also set up a webpage to gather donations and volunteers for the organizations involved. 

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