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Grassroots agency seeks to fill gaps in refugee resettlement support

Hilary Farrell

An estimated 600 to 700 refugees resettle in West Michigan annually; a number some say is likely to increase with a proposed rise in resettlement aid at the federal level. 

An ecosystem of agencies exist locally to provide support during the resettlement process.

One such organization, named Thrive: A Refugee Support Program, attempts to fill gaps for clients who may need specialized or longer-term support.

“My name is Henri Stani; I was born in Congo. Grew up in Tanzania.”

"My name is Vumilia Malenga. I came here in 2010, when I was like, 10 years old. Just a little girl.” 

The story of Thrive starts in 2010 with Vumilia, her family of nine and a church in Wyoming, where Marcia Elders was the-then pastor. 

Elders and her husband David Apol had no particular background or knowledge of refugee populations. But one day, they receive a letter. Can you help this family?

“They handed that letter to Marcia, and – I mean, that was just – even to this day, [it] had such a profound affect on us," Apol said. "Because we bonded with these people. And we said, ‘we will do whatever we can to help.’” 

The move can feel insurmountable, for any number of reasons.

An entirely new country; in some cases, such as Joseph Muhindo, an entirely new language as well. 

Henri helps translate. 

“[Joseph says] The culture is different than [from] where we’re from, and in America," Henri says. “[Joseph says] when he came here he (got) an apartment, [housing] ... but the support doesn’t last long ... and he doesn’t understand nothing over here.”

Elders says Thrive focuses on longer-term community acclimation – cases like Joseph.

The agency is volunteer-driven and generally works with referred clients for nine months to a year, sometimes longer.

She says they’ve helped close to 150 people since 2011, beginning with Vumilia and her family.

The next steps for Thrive, Elders and Apol say, is to open a refugee support center in the area. 

They’re about halfway toward fundraising for that goal. 

You can learn more about the agency at RefugeeSupportGR.com.

This story is a piece of a longer series on west Michigan refugee resettlement. Click here to learn about the initial work of bringing refugees to America, and the local agencies that make that possible.

Hilary is a General Assignment and Enterprise reporter for WGVU Public Media. She joined WGVU in September 2014 after several years of experience as a local news reporter, anchor and photojournalist in Midland, Saginaw and Bay counties. She's also worked as a financial and business reporter and audio field producer.
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