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Collaboration is key, say initial refugee resettlement agencies


A total of 4,006 refugees resettled in Michigan in fiscal year 2014, according to federal numbers.

About 700 resettled in the Grand Rapids area.

Inside that number is a diverse group of individuals and families, from about a dozen different countries and cultures. And two primary agencies that provide initial resettlement services.

Chris Cavanaugh is the program manager for west Michigan refugee services at Lutheran Social Services of Michigan.

“So the process goes through really various stages before a refugee ends up here in Grand Rapids,” he says.

“The U.S. State Department ultimately runs the federal refugee resettlement program. They’re responsible for setting up the program and developing sites for refugees to be resettled. And they primarily work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – the UNHCR.”

Cavanaugh says the number of cases taken by the U.S. is decided between those bodies, Congress, and other federal departments.

Clients are then referred to one of nine agencies that help resettle refugees across the nation.

LSSM and Bethany Christian Services handle the majority of locally-resettled refugee cases, as affiliates of three of those nine parent agencies – Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and Episcopal Migration Ministries for LSSM, and Church World Service for Bethany.

Kristine Van Noord is the refugee program manager for Bethany.

“For the last several years, the main people groups that we have been resettling are the Burmese, the Bhutanese from Nepal, the Congolese, Iraqis and some Cubans,” she says. “As well as several other smaller people groups that we’ve been working with.”

Van Noord says Bethany resettled about 279 clients in the past fiscal year, which ended in October.

LSSM resettled about 420, Cavanaugh says.

“Our trends going into this next new year – this year, we resettled 27 Syrian refugees; we’re expecting that number for the next year to be much, much higher,” Van Noord says. “We’ve also started serving some Afghan refugees.”

The process from first settlement – where a refugee is harbored in a new country, usually close to from where they flee, to resettlement – whether United States or elsewhere – is a long and sometimes difficult process.

Van Noord says collaboration on resettlement work is key – between agencies and other related non-profits, but also the larger community.

“We rely on the community, we cannot do this alone. In fact, the government considers refugee resettlement a public-private partnership,” she says. “And so that connection with the community whether it’s other agencies that serve refugees or small groups and churches that we work with – that is just so essential.”

Those services include anything and everything from housing, clothing, food, job opportunities, cultural training, English language courses, and medical aid.

Both say the works starts before a refugee arrives at the airport.

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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