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Syrian refugees no strangers to West Michigan support

Bethany Christian Services connects employers with potential workers.

December 4, 2015
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Syrian refugees may be getting turned away from other communities around the world, but not in West Michigan.

Since 2011, Syria’s civil war has led to what has been labeled the worst refugee crisis since World War II. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres called it the biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation.

Kristine Van Noord, refugee resettlement and employment program manager at Grand Rapids-based Bethany Christian Services, is well aware of the problem.

“Everyday people — Kurds, Arabs, Christians, Muslims — have been caught in the midst of it and many have had to flee for their lives. There’s been 8 million internally displaced inside of Syria (meaning they’re still inside Syria’s borders, but no longer living in their homes), and then it’s a minimum of 4 million in bordering countries like Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey,” she said. “But in those four border countries having an influx, there isn’t an option for Syrian refugees to either return to Syria or live viably in those four countries. It’s just not possible for them to stay in those places.”

How to take in Syrian refugees is a problem the United States is still processing, Van Noord said. The leadership of Michigan hasn’t ruled out the idea of bringing in more Syrian refugees in the future, but it has currently “paused efforts to bring more refugees to Michigan until the U.S. reviews its security procedures,” said Gov. Rick Snyder.

On Nov. 17, just four days after the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, Time Magazine published a column from Snyder, who said, although he wants to keep the state open to immigrants, who have historically had a profoundly positive impact on the local economy and culture, he feels in order to keep Michigan lives safe, he wants to stop and take a closer look at the processes in place and determine the soundness of Michigan’s security systems. 

“In recent months the world viewed the heartbreaking images of families fleeing their homes across the Middle East and seeking refuge in safer places in Europe and beyond. I let it be known that Michigan can be a place where thousands can experience safety and freedom — and a growing community where they will be embraced and comforted by a support network. It’s the right thing for us to do as Michiganders, and the right thing for us to do as Americans,” Snyder wrote in the column.

“Our state must be open to the people looking to rebuild shattered lives, just as it should be open to those who come here to learn in our universities or those who come to build or invest in our state’s industries. We must never confuse the people who look to us for safety and opportunity with those who wish to do us harm. I am simply asking for assurance that the federal process will know the difference.”

The same day Snyder’s column ran, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell commented on the situation through a statement at the City Commission meeting, saying America should not exchange its freedoms for security, nor “turn this event into a witch-hunt that would sweep innocent people up in its nets.

“If we use this terror to turn xenophobic, to repel freedom-seeking people at our borders, or to look unkindly at those whose faith is other than our own, then the terrorists will have succeeded and the end of the American soul cannot be far away. I, for one, refuse to be afraid. I refuse to hate. I refuse to respond to violence with suspicion of my neighbor. Today I call on you, the citizens of this great city, to do the same."

Syrian refugees are already here, Van Noord said. The U.S. has been receiving Syrian refugees since 2011. Since then, it’s taken in 2,000 Syrian refugees, 1,682 of whom arrived in the last fiscal year. Since the conflict in Syria began, Michigan has taken in about 180 Syrian refugees, 169 of whom came in the last fiscal year.

Bethany Christian Services has received 34 Syrian refugees since April, Van Noord said.

“They’re doing well, but they’re all in different stages. Some are working and really thriving; others have needed medical care based on what they suffered in Syria,” she said.

“Thankfully, they have a lot of support around them. The Syrian American community has been amazing in terms of reaching out, as has the local community.”

To those who are concerned terrorists might try to use Syrian refugees as a Trojan horse to sneak across our borders, Van Noord said West Michigan’s Syrian refugees are not a threat.

“I have met with these families. I have heard their stories — I know why they fled. They’re as much victims of ISIS as those who lost their lives in Paris,” she said. “They’re lovely people who desperately needed somewhere else to live. And the security process is so in depth for refugees. These are the victims.”

The security process to which Van Noord refers is the 13-step checklist refugees have to go through to enter the United States. This process, which Van Noord called “the most in-depth vetting process of any visitor to the United States,” requires security checks overseen by the Department of State and involves agencies such as the FBI, the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security doing fingerprinting, DNA testing and in-depth security interviews by highly trained agents. It’s unlikely any Syrian refugees who are connected to terrorism are getting past that system, she said.

Religion also has played a part in the discussions surrounding Syrian refugees, who are predominantly Muslim. Many have commented on social media that to use religious differences as a reason to turn away Middle Easterners seeking refuge is somewhat hypocritical of a predominately Christian nation, especially given how closely the situation resembles the Christmas story of Mary and Joseph’s stay in a Bethlehem manger.

As far as West Michigan’s Christian community is concerned, Van Noord said she’s seen nothing but support.

“The feedback from local churches wanting to love and care for Syrian refugees … we’ve just been overwhelmed by requests to help. We’ve gotten so many responses of ‘How can we volunteer and donate?’” she said.

“We have 34 (Syrian refugees) made up of five different family groups. All of them are Muslim, but we are expecting to receive Christian Syrian refugees. Christian Syrians are a minority … but in Syria, both Muslims and Christians have been targeted, so both are now refugees. We do anticipate having them come, and churches are ready to accept them, as well.”

Bethany Christian Services is working with local landlords to get the refugees into stable housing in apartments or single-family homes. Bethany also received a $350,000 matching gift from an anonymous donor to be used specifically for Middle Eastern refugees.

“We also provide employment services, English learning classes, work-readiness classes, assistance in getting kids connected into school, getting them connected to primary care physicians,” Van Noord said.

“We get $925 per person (from the federal government) as a one-time amount that is used to furnish their apartment, pay for rent and utilities in their first 90 days. It’s obviously not a lot of money — that’s why we rely on churches and other community organizations and nonprofits.”

Bethany also has a refugee employment program, working with local businesses to help meet their hiring needs. In the past six years, Bethany has worked with 350 employers, Van Noord said, adding many refugees from various countries have found work in manufacturing industries such as automotive, food and packaging. The Syrian refugees are newer and have a variety of skills, but will soon be entering the workforce.

And once they’re in the system, she’s convinced they’ll thrive.

“Refugees add to our community. As they’re here, they’re able to buy homes and start local businesses. They’re a huge part of the employers they’re a part of. They do not want to be on public assistance. They really want to work and start their lives in the U.S., and specifically in West Michigan,” she said.

“The number one thing I’ve heard from every Syrian refugee has been ‘I’m in America. I finally feel safe.’”

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