The teacher is at the front of the room drawing triangles and writing out mathematical formulas on the board. Some of your classmates look confused. You’re mystified. The information is complex and entirely new. You don’t understand most of what your teacher says, and you don’t speak english. When you go home, your parents cannot help with homework, as they are only conversationally fluent, too. You are in a new place where the people don’t dress like you, speak your language, or understand where you came from. You also didn’t chose to come to this new place. You didn’t even really chose to leave your home. You were forced out of your country, then spent two years waiting to come here, only to feel alone, and possibly even excluded. You are a resettled refugee.
According to the United Nations, 65.3 million people are currently displaced, and 21.3 million of those displaced peoples are refugees. According to the 1951 Convention on Refugees and the 1967 Protocol, a refugee is are persons who “owing to 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 or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” Resettlement is distinct from all other forms of migration. Resettled refugees do not chose their destination. They only choose to leave.
Refugees fleeing their home nation often find themselves in camps in neighboring states. While a refugee camp is not the ideal situation for any person, certain groups are at greater risk and therefore considered for resettlement. These groups include women and children, victims of torture and violence, people with medical or physical protection needs, or those eligible for family reunification. Most of these individuals lack durable solutions, meaning the UN believes they could not safely stay in the refugee camps for an extended time or lead a meaningful life when they returned home. Some of them may even be worse off in the camps than they would have been in the country they chose to flee. Therefore, the UN cooperates with its members to resettle these refugees in a willing host nation. While host nations are allowed to determine which refugees they would like and how many per year, the UN selects which individuals are eligible from the refugee camps.
To be eligible for resettlement, a refugee must belong to group requiring more durable solutions. The refugee then must prove their refugee status. Refugee status only applies to individuals fleeing their home for reasons of persecution. Individuals displaced for reasons such as economic disparity or environmental destruction do not qualify for refugee status.
Once a refugee proves their status, they then undergo a series of interviews and security screening procedures with the UN before being referred to another country for resettlement. In 2016, the Obama Administration chose to resettle 850,000 refugees. Each refugee must be screened by nine government organizations before they are selected for US resettlement. Only 50% of refugees pass the screening process. Those who do pass wait another 18-24 months before reaching the US.
Upon entering the US under the resettlement program, refugees lose their status and are commonly referred to as newcomers by aid agencies. The Federal Refugee Resettlement Program expects that newcomers become self-sufficient. Despite this, little accommodation is provided to them after their first year in the country besides a brief cultural orientation and some ESL classes before they enter the US. Newcomers are loaned money for travel and living expenses. In Michigan’s case, nonprofits provide for newcomers using federal assistance. Other states are allowed to determine their own resettlement process. For a year, a nonprofit helps refugees find housing, jobs, and resources to begin their new lives in the US. Beyond that one year mark, it is a choice of the local community and the nonprofit to continue to assist refugees. Successful resettlement policy assists refugees along the path to self-sufficiency, but that policy depends more on local participation than national programs.
If host countries fail to provide solutions that adequately address the needs of refugees, they run the risk of creating worse situations for individuals fleeing their homes. Before even arriving in their new host nation, refugees have faced persecution, lived in a refugee camp, undergone years of tests, and arrive with little cultural or language education. Failure to account for the needs of refugees can create communities like the Swedish ghettos. In Sweden, refugees from Somalia were resettled in a community where they lived removed from the city and were unable to assimilate or interact with their host nation. Refugees often faced discrimination because of their former refugee status and isolation.
The US system runs the same risk. Adult refugees are expected to have a job, despite language barriers, a lack of transportation, or cultural unfamiliarity. Children are enrolled in school according to their age, despite language proficiency or past education. Without assistance in navigating their new home, refugees run the risk of being unable to locate basic resources or interact meaningfully with the community. To offset federal limitations, some cities have encouraged the community to help newcomers in various capacities.
Lansing, Michigan is home to 800 refugees as of 2016 and plans to take in more. As a mid-sized city with an average cost of living and an effective transportation system, Lansing is already an ideal candidate for refugees seeking to become self-sufficient. Transportation can make finding jobs and accessing community resources like grocery stores and schools easier for newcomers. However, Lansing has distinguished itself as an ideal community for refugees in more than just economic opportunity.
While the state of Michigan resettles many refugees from Muslim communities, Lansing’s refugee population is more diverse and even takes individuals from smaller conflicts. Lansing is a free city. Free cities do not require refugees to already have family in the city to resettle there, and place no restrictions on who may live here. Other cities may chose to only accept refugees from a certain conflict or religion or only those with other family. These regulations can make sure that new refugees have a similar community to enter, and resources already located in the city. However, they also limit the US’s ability to accept diverse populations or provide the best placement for newcomers.
With such a diverse population, there will always come problems with inclusion. Lansing believed creating a community where the city and law enforcement would be open and accessible could mitigate these problems. The city council began the process by declaring Lansing a Welcome City. This declaration did not grant the city any specific legal powers, but did emphasize the community’s commitment to supporting their growing refugee population in a way that was inclusive and safe.
In evidence of this commitment, several nonprofits are working to help newcomers adjust to Lansing with support from local institutions and community members. St. Vincent Catholic Charities is responsible for resettling refugees in Lansing. St. Vincent locates affordable housing, facilitates ESL classes, enrolls children in schools, provides cultural orientation, assists in the application for documents, and finds possible employment for new refugees. They also choose to continue to assist refugees in a different capacity after the one year federal requirement by continuing home visits and education.
St. Vincent is assisted in the community by the Refugee Development Center. The RDC partners with the Lansing school district to provide tutoring and cultural education to young newcomers at the elementary, middle school, and high school level. The RDC uses volunteers from the local community, including local colleges and universities like Michigan State, to assist in their programs. The RDC also sponsors ESL classes for adult newcomers, and encourages newcomer families to help each other in the transition.
By encouraging community members to actively participate in their programs, St. Vincent and the RDC create an environment where individuals are aware of the refugee population and can identify with their struggle. This environment is crucial to pass legislation that resettled populations need and to discourage discrimination. These nonprofits also give newcomers the necessary education in language and culture to interact with their new home nation, and pursue eventual citizenship. The situation is not always ideal. Lansing still struggles with a variety of issues in resettlement. Despite these problems, local nonprofits still provide valuable resources to newcomer populations.
While Michigan’s representatives argue over the continuation of their resettlement programs, Lansing proves the resettlement process can provide a more meaningful life for refugees in the US than they could have achieved in refugee camps. At the national level, the resettlement program is in serious question under the Trump administration. However, the fact remains that there are currently refugees in many communities across the US and the world. Most of us cannot even imagine fleeing our homes forever, let alone being asked to live in a community that is hostile to us in a place that is entirely new. We have a responsibility to individuals resettled in our communities to provide a welcoming and safe home.