This semester I decided to accept an offer for an internship position at the Refugee Development Center in Lansing. I chose to pursue this internship because I am very interested in issues concerning refugees coming to the United States specifically and I wanted to get first-hand experience working with refugees who are going through or have just completed the resettlement process and need a little extra help. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “An estimated 13.9 million people were newly displaced due to conflict or persecution, including 2.9 million new refugees. By the end of 2014 the number of people assisted or protected by UNHCR had reached a record high of 46.7 million people” (UNHCR.org). Statistics like these from the UNHCR fuel my passion to devote myself to the service of those whose final option was to leave their home country to find a better and safer life somewhere new.
There are many reasons that people leave their home countries for asylum in countries they perceive as safer than their own, and I am very fascinated in learning about those reasons and how I can give them the help they need when they arrive. Also, being able to better understand the reasons why people leave their home countries can help us come up with ways that we can help that country so people do not feel that their only option is to leave where they have started their family and have all of their memories. According to the UNHCR, “Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts, the right of everyone to seek and enjoy asylum. However, no clear content was given to the notion of asylum at the international level until the 1951 Convention related to the Status of Refugees [the ‘1951 Convention’] was adopted, and UNHCR was tasked to supervise its implementation” (UNHCR.org). Though the 1951 Convention states that it is a right of everyone to be able to seek and enjoy asylum, the process of relocating and resettling in a country such as the United States is a very long and tedious process. Many people believe that these refugees can just get on a airplane over night and be safe when that is usually not the case. Many refugees have to wait very long periods of time before they are granted asylum in the United States.
Additionally, the 1951 Convention helped to give a specific definition for the term “refugee” and come up with a universal protocol of the basic rights of refugees around the world. However, even with the 1951 Convention’s definition of a refugee, the terms refugee and migrant are still often used interchangeably, which can be very problematic. According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, a refugee is someone who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country” (rescue.org). This very different from the term migrant, mostly because refugees do not choose where they go when they are accepted into a host country for refuge. Most of the time, it is not the refugee’s choice to even leave their home country, however, the conditions there are likely too dangerous to stay there without having fear for their lives.
Further, the Refugee Development Center provides the educational and social support refugees need. The mission statement of the Refugee Development Center is, “To provide the education, orientation and support refugees need to become self-sufficient members of society.” Many people are amazed to hear that Lansing is such a popular city for the resettlement of refugees and that there is even a need to have such an agency such as the Refugee Development Center. According to the Refugee Development Center website, “Lansing is a destination for many refugees due to its status as a “free case city”—a home for refugees who don’t already have family living in America. It is a mid-sized city (therefore the cost of living isn’t too high), with adequate bus lines, and an already-diverse population” (Refugee Development Center). Because of this,“Between 400 and 700 refugees are resettled in the Lansing area each year. There are currently between 10,000 and 13,000 refugees living in mid-Michigan” (Refugee Development Center).
However, the refugee community that is resettled in the United States only receives a certain amount of support for a very little time period before being sent out on their own. With the help of the federal government, “In the first 90 days, agencies such as the IRC (International Rescue Committee) contract with the Department of State to provide for refugee’s food, housing, employment, medical care, counseling and other services to help the refugee make a rapid transition to economic self-sufficiency” (rescue.org). It is obviously very difficult for refugees to adjust in such a short period of time, which is the reason why agencies such as the Refugee Development Center exist.
Moreover, my position at the Refugee Development Center is as an assistant coach for the Newcomers Soccer Team, which is a team that consists of fifteen middle school aged boys from various countries around the world. My duties as of right now include attending after school tutoring for them on Monday’s to help them with their homework completion, helping them paint a mural at Gardner Middle School on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, and coaching indoor soccer games on Saturday’s and occasionally Sunday’s. When completed, the mural that they are painting will represent a part of each of their cultures with flags, special words in their languages, etc. Once it gets nice enough to go outside and the mural is finished, we will be starting soccer practice each Tuesday and Thursday for the boy’s outdoor season. Working with these boys for the past three months has really opened my eyes to a lot of different perspectives on what is being called the “refugee crisis.”
With all of the controversy geared towards whether or not the United States should be accepting Syrian refugees in particular, it has been to my surprise that I have not worked with a single Syrian refugee during my time with the Refugee Development Center. What is even more surprising is that the majority of my clients are from Nepal. According to the statistics on the Refugee Development Center website, “The Lansing refugee community includes Afghans, Bosnians, Burmese, Bhutanese (Nepali), Burundians, Congolese (DR and Brazzaville), Croats, Cubans, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Hmong, Iranians, Iraqis, Kurds, Liberians, Meskhetian Turks, Somali, Bantu Somali, Sudanese, and Vietnamese, along with small numbers from many other countries around the world” (Refugee Development Center). The ‘small numbers from many other countries’ do include some refugees from Syria, however, the number really is very small.
So why is it that all we see on the media of refugees is those from the Middle East, particularly Syria? I remember seeing an image of a child washed up on the shore in Greece, an image that took the internet by storm. Though this was not directly related to the United States because it took place in Europe, I noticed this image put the events taking place in Syria into context for many American citizens. Warsan Shire, a Somali-British writer and poet, wrote a poem that depicts a very vivd image and understanding of what it means to be a refugee, entitled Home. The line that strikes me the most in the poem is, “You have to understand, that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land,” (globalcitizen.org). It is important to recognize this fact and I believe that the image of the child washed up on shore, though a very horrible and traumatic image, helped many people understand what the people fleeing these countries are willing to do to escape their home country. Justin Forsyth, CEO of Save the Children, made a statement that, “This tragic image of a little boy who’s lost his life fleeing Syria is shocking and is a reminder of the dangers children and families are taking in search of a better life. This child’s plight should concentrate minds and force the EU to come together and agree to a plan to tackle the refugee crisis” (theguardian.com). This does not only pertain to the European Union or refugees fleeing Syria specifically, this is happening all around the world and it is extremely important that we come together to recognize what is happening needs to be addressed as well as approached with compassion for those who are fleeing an unbearable situation they have endured in their home countries.