Is there such a thing as pent-up love? Politics and the pandemic reduced the flow of refugees to greater Lansing to a trickle by 2020, but that has changed dramatically in recent weeks. The response in Lansing has floored Erika Brown Binion, executive director of the Refugee Development Center. The center is asking for, and getting, generous help welcoming about 300 refugees from Afghanistan to greater Lansing.
“The doors are back open,” Brown Binion said. “We’re back to a long tradition of bipartisan support for accepting refugees, because it’s the right thing to do and we’ve always been a welcoming country. We have a lot of people on the ground here, willing to do the work.”
The center was already busy helping Lansing’s refugee community get through the pandemic, while meeting the same challenges all nonprofits faced.
“We had to pivot, just like everyone else,” Brown Binion said. “We shifted to a lot of crisis intervention for families who needed much more navigation of systems, and language support was critical.”
Although the flow of refugees to Lansing all but stopped in 2020 during the pandemic, the center was still deeply engaged in supporting a broad range of refugees from previous years navigate life in Lansing.
“They were essential workers. We had two parents going off to work and kids trying to do virtual schooling at home,” Brown Binion said. “We had to shift to a lot more case management and help people with food, housing and utility needs, Internet payments, not having access to devices to live in a virtual world — all of those pieces some of us have had to experience in our own families but maybe take for granted.”
The evacuation of Afghanistan had a dramatic effect on refugee numbers in October and November. The U.S. has evacuated about 65,000 people from Afghanistan, according to Brown Binion. Lansing has resettled about 133 already. In all, Michigan is set to welcome about 1,600 Afghan refugees, and Lansing will welcome about 300.
The goal is to get them all settled before the end of February.
St. Vincent Catholic Charities handles the initial resettlement of refugees in Lansing, welcoming them at the airport, finding them a place to live and arranging medical appointments. The Refugee Development Center works in tandem with St. Vincent within days of a refugee’s arrival, but its services become crucial over the longer term, after the initial resettlement period has lapsed.
“After 90 days, resettlement work is over and people are supposed to be on their own, but we all know that takes much longer,” Brown Binion said. “That’s why we exist.”
The day we talked, Brown Binion had just helped five families enroll their kids in school, four days after they arrived in Lansing.
“We’re doing a lot of welcoming work, enrolling in schools, enrolling in English classes, doing home visits, delivering welcome kits, getting people on their feet and able to live here in this community,” Brown Binion said.
To help the center meet this new influx, it has established a Welcome Home Fund that will help the families in myriad ways, from tutoring in English to long-term housing costs.
Newly arrived families are added daily to the virtual giving tree on the center’s Facebook page, where donors can find out what each family wishes for the most, from blankets to a skateboard.
There is a volunteer waiting list, with many virtual volunteer opportunities. When the center recently moved to an in-person system of delivering veggie boxes to clients, every volunteer shift filled up within a day or two.
“It speaks to how welcoming Lansing is,” Brown Binion said.
The center has added three full-time staffers in the past year. The widespread shortage of employees, inside and outside of the nonprofit sector, is not a problem. Workplace flexibility and a culture of dedication help keep the staff from burning out.
“We take great care in how we approach each workers’ needs,” Brown Binion said. Most members of her staff were volunteers at first. “That passion has helped people stick around during this really tough time,” she said. “We also spend a lot of time talking about self-care, and our own health and safety first, in order to be able to help the families we work with.”
The center has come a long way since it started 20 years ago with one staff member and a handful of volunteers. In 2021, the paid staff is well over 20 and volunteers number over 300.
“It’s a pretty sweet place to be and I’m pretty proud of it,” Brown Binion said. “We’re grateful to live in this community that is so welcoming. When you see someone who might be from another place, give them a friendly smile. Come join us at the RDC and you can see a whole world right here in your backyard.”
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