Refugees displaced by violence find new home in Washtenaw County
Editor’s note: The name of a refugee in this story has been changed because of potential implications on his family or future refugees, denoted with a star.
For over half his life, Hassan* has been without a country to call home. As a small boy, he fled from Somalia in 1992 amid a civil war, arriving in Kenya alongside hundreds of thousands of other Somali refugees.
Now, Hassan, his wife, and his four children — the oldest six years old, the youngest one year old— are starting their life again in Washtenaw County. About 80 refugees per year are resettled by Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County, the only resettlement agency in the area.
Hassan and his family applied through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for resettlement as asylum-seekers in 2009. After seven years of screenings and waiting, he learned he was one of the few to have his application approved. According to UNHCR, less than 1% of all refugees registered with the United Nations are resettled in new countries.
Continuous warfare and famine has prevented many refugees like Hassan from returning to Somalia — one group of many worldwide that are finding their home countries inhospitable. More than 400,000 Somali refugees remain in Kenya — primarily in decades-old refugee camps — according to the UNHCR. However, while in the country they are not issued legal work permits and are often targeted by government-sponsored repressive action and xenophobic stigma, making it difficult for those like Hassan to find work and assimilate.
“When I was given the privilege to go the United States, I just felt happy. I felt so excited,” Hassan said. “Because where I was living, life was quite hard.”
In the 2015 fiscal year, 69,933 refugees out of a pool of more than 400,000 applicants were accepted for resettlement in the United States by the Department of State, with Burma, Iraq and Somalia the three largest countries of origin. Once approved, refugees are matched with one of nine national-level resettlement agencies, which then further divide the refugees among local affiliates like the JFS of Washtenaw. Beyond that, it’s up to the families, with some help from the local affiliates depending on local processes.
Having just arrived to Michigan in early March, Hassan said he and his family are still settling into to their new surroundings. He described many things — the colder climate, unfamiliar foods and reliable indoor plumbing — as unique challenges to adjust to, and said he is still reluctant to let his children play outside until he is more familiar with the neighborhood.
At JFS, when refugees arrive in the Ann Arbor area, they work with a case manager on a daily basis for the next 90 days. The overall goal, according to Nathaniel Smith, a JFS resettlement case manager, is to have them be self-sufficient by the end of that period.
“We address a lot of different areas of the refugees’ life, getting them set up with all the things that they need to start functioning on their own here,” Smith said. “For the most part, they are close to being financially self-sufficient after 90 days.”
Originally founded in 1978 to help resettle Jews fleeing the Soviet Union, JFS has worked with refugees fleeing numerous conflicts since then, including Kosovars fleeing the Balkan Wars in the 1990s, Somalis, Burmans, Afghans and Syrians.
JFS Executive Director Anya Abramazon said each new wave of refugees poses unique challenges. The most recent wave, she said, has largely been individuals fleeing conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere like Hassan, including large numbers of Iraqis who worked for the U.S. military.
“Few of (our earlier cases) came from an active combat situation where they were facing death and loss, so the level of trauma that we’re seeing is very high,” she said. “It takes time for people to figure out how to get out of that survival mode and just start living their life.”
Assistance during the 90-day period currently includes help with registering for proper identification, school enrollment, initial medical screenings and employment services. Follow-up English language training and career services are also available for up to five years after arrival.
With this wave, and in recent years in particular, Abramazon and Smith pointed to several newer challenges.
In particular, Ambrazon noted that the recent wave has required different services because many of the refugees JFS is currently working with are young children, who have seperate individual needs.
“Kids need support,” she said. “They need time to understand the new environment, and for them it’s not as much of a challenge as it is for their parents, but it’s still a challenge.”
Smith also said currently, high housing costs also present a challenge in resettling refugees in the Ann Arbor area.
“Some of the challenges that JFS faces when working in Washtenaw County are perhaps the same challenges that other residents of Washtenaw County face,” he said, adding that JFS has a partnership with McKinley Housing to help find affordable apartments. “Rentals can be somewhat expensive in this area and there’s often limited availability, especially when we get larger families arriving.”
However, both also noted that for many refugees, and for their agency, the community support they’ve found in Washtenaw has been key to successful resettlement. JFS relies in part on donations of money, food and furniture from local residents and Christian, Jewish and Islamic faith-based groups. They also have interns from the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University. Many of JFS’s broader services — such as a food bank and counseling — are now available to the whole community, not just refugees.
“They come here because of acceptance, because it’s a very welcoming community,” Abramazon said. “Nobody is puzzled here when they hear an accent.”
Speaking in the JFS offices in Ann Arbor, where Hassan has daily appointments, he said he is optimistic for his family’s future. Currently, his children are attending local schools. Hassan said he plans to find work and pursue higher education to further his career, and eventually become an entrepreneur.
“The first priority that I would like to give my family is (the opportunity) to go to school and learn,” Hassan said. “I want to become a great businessman … someone who is self-confident and can employ people.”