A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. According to the United Nations, the world is facing the highest levels of displacement in history. 65.6 million people have been forced to leave their homes, and that number rises daily.
Many are not aware of the role that Grand Rapids plays in accepting and supporting refugees. There are 25,000 refugees in Grand Rapids and over 1/2 of them are children. Refugees come from Somalia, the Democratic of the Congo, Nepal, and more.
After settlement, The Refugee Education Center (REC) helps to support refugee children and families to adjust to their new lives in Grand Rapids. REC meets with families one on one in their homes to understand where they came from and what their needs are.
One of the key needs that the REC addresses is education. REC staff assists in enrolling children in schools and educating families about the specifics of the school system: uniforms, conferences, grading, ect. The REC works to ensure that the voices of the families are heard if there are any concerns as well. The REC also has a summer literacy program and an after-school homework help program to help students with their language skills and school work.
“It is amazing how much growth a child experiences when there is an investment of intentional time and long-term relationship with an adult who cares about them. When a volunteer trained through the REC invests in the same child (or group of children) over the course of a year or more, they build a relationship of safety and trust.”Alison Kummer, REC Student Support Coordinator
There are many challenges of adjusting to a new life in the United States. The largest barrier is adjusting to a new culture. In their home countries, refugees had unique values and traditions, different histories of conflict, their own language and dialect, and education systems unlike the system of the United States. Moreover, many refugees spent time in a refugee camp before coming into the US. In refugee camps, the people are in a “holding ground,” or time of waiting. This increases the difficulty in adjusting to the USA’s culture, which is focused on busyness, productivity, and efficiency.
“A person’s cultural construct, value system, sense of belonging, formal and informal education, and societal expectations deeply define their identity. When thrust into a completely new cultural construct, such as Grand Rapids Michigan, parents and their children are challenged with absorbing everything that is valued and acceptable in their new context, while reckoning with what is still essential and sacred within their own cultural identity.”Alison Kummer, REC Student Support Coordinator
One of the goals of the REC is to ensure that children have an identity rooted in their home country while adapting to a new culture in the United States. The staff and volunteers are trained to be culturally aware so that they are able to provide a safe space in which kids and families of any culture feel comfortable and learn more about themselves.
“For a child who has a history of trauma, or a family/community surrounded by a history of trauma, the process of self-discovery can often feel dangerous and sometimes impossible.”Alison Kummer, REC Student Support Coordinator
It is important to realize that it is not enough to only assist refugees in meeting their material needs. People of Grand Rapids must do what they can to be a good neighbor in the long term and to walk alongside refugees throughout their lives, not just during their arrival. The arrival of refugees in Grand Rapids is only the beginning, and what follows is many years of adjustment and work to build a new life.
“Our young refugees have a wealth of resources and unique backgrounds that shape the way they view and impact the world. By supporting refugee children in education, we empower them to become leaders in our businesses, communities, and in our world.”Alison Kummer, REC Student Support Coordinator
Thank you to the Refugee Center for hosting freshmen students from FHE and teaching them more about the lives of refugees. Also, thank you to the REC’s student support coordinator, Alison Kummer, for providing information in an interview. If you are interested in volunteering, visit https://refugeeeducationcenter.org/about/ for more information.