Feb. 3 2016 11:14 AM

Lansing's Refugee Development Center absorbs big surge of volunteers

Lansing Refugee Development Center volunteer coordinator Kristina Sankar addressed an unprecedented wave of volunteers at a meeting at MSU last Thursday.
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse

Andrew Ford, a pastor at Grand Ledge Baptist Church, resolved to venture "outside his comfort zone" in 2016. He wasn't alone. Thursday, Ford joined a mob of volunteers who reported for duty with Lansing's Refugee Development Center and signed up to teach English to area refugees.

The response was the biggest in the RDC's 14-year history, according to RDC director Erika Brown Binion. As the arrivals packed into a stuffy auditorium at MSU's Snyder-Phillips Hall, a hippo-sized heap of coats mounted near the door.

"We have almost filled all of our spots for volunteering, and that is unprecedented, Brown-Binion said. "We've had a tremendous outpouring of support, very different from the national media and the anti-refugee rhetoric you hear."

Monday and Thursday orientation sessions at MSU each drew over 100 volunteers. Most were MSU students, interspersed with community members. Many attendees, including Ford, said they were concerned about anti-immigrant vitriol at the state and national level.

"People are afraid and they react, Ford said. "It's normal. But our country is working at it and I want to be part of the solution. The [Syrian] refugee crisis spurred me to think about this more."

Another non-student volunteer, Sarah Shaw of Charlotte, was impressed with the turnout. "I'm excited there's so many people interested in doing this, with all the rhetoric going on,” Shaw said. “It's disturbing and really bothers me. Other cultures are frequently misrepresented in our media."

In the lobby, MSU professor and former Lansing City Councilman Vincent Delgado watched volunteers shake snow off their shoes as they filtered in. Delgado made a pointed reference to a controversial law, passed last week by Danish legislators, approving the confiscation of refugees' assets upon arrival.

"In Lansing, we look at refugees' assets and try to grow them." Delgado, a co-founder of the Refugee Development Center in 2002, is now a secretary on its board. "When we started, it was me, an intern and a phone," he said.

The Refugee Development Center served about 300 people in its first year. It helped over 1700 clients in 2015. There are nine full-time and two part-time employees and about 300 volunteers.

As Brown-Binion explained to the volunteers Thursday, the RDC is not a resettlement agency. In Lansing, Lutheran Social Services of Michigan resettles unaccompanied minors; St. Vincent Catholic Charities takes everyone else.

But case management from resettlement services lasts only about 90 days, sometimes up to six months.

"After that, refugees are on their own learning the language, getting a job and providing for themselves," Brown-Binion said. "That's one of the reasons the RDC exists."

Services include hundreds of English classes, held mostly at Lansing schools, a soccer program, a summer science camp, home visits and "social- emotional" support programs.

"A lot of our purpose is to provide orientation to life here, to build social skills and help them navigate the new culture,” he said.

The center is funded by a mix of private donations and funds from the city of Lansing, the federal government (via competitive grants) and Ingham County.

"We do direct service work, working with clients out in the community," Brown-Binion said. "About 97 percent of our funding goes to that."

Thursday's volunteers sat through a three-hour program, including a work shop on second language teaching, but first they were given an overview of a big, and tragic picture. According to the United Nations, there are nearly 20 million refugees in the world, the highest number since World War II. Three million were added last year alone. Only about one percent are resettled each year.

The most surprising number Brown- Binion threw at the volunteers Thursday was the average stay in a refugee camp: 17 years, according to a 2014 UN report.

Last year, Lansing settled about 625 refugees, including 187 from Somalia, 84 from Iraq, 85 from Burma, and 83 from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Delgado said the RDC has become the largest provider of English as a second language instruction in greater Lansing. Last week, the RDC experimented with day classes for the first time. Delgado said the response was "overwhelming."

"They could have opened as many classes as they wanted," Brown-Binion said.

Delgado praised the RDC board for dealing shrewdly with the recent surge of growth. Instead of leasing or buying more office space, the RDC has worked with partners like the Lansing School District.

"A lot of times, non-profits make huge investments in space,” Delgado said. “We're really devoted to programs."

The RDC runs after-school language programs in Lansing schools with a high bi-lingual population. At Lansing's North Elementary, about 60 students take afterschool language classes from RDC volunteers. RDC also runs after-school programs at Gardner Middle School and Everett High School and helps bilingual departments at Sheridan Road, Cumberland and North elementary schools.

The growth of the RDC dovetails with a Dec.14 resolution passed by Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and the City Council declaring Lansing a "welcoming city" to immigrants and refugees. Delgado said there's more to the resolution than rhetoric.

"Yeah, there's symbolism there, but we're going to see some real policies come from that,” Delgado said. "There's already been discussions around some initiatives, with the RDC and others, that could improve the welcome."

Delgado said the RDC board has been briefed on potential resettlement of Syrian refugees in Lansing. "There are more than four million Syrian refugees." Brown-Binion told the volunteers at MSU Thursday. "We have seen zero so far in Lansing, about 200 in Michigan."

But refugee agencies are bracing for an influx. "It's almost always delayed,” Delgado said. “[Sudanese] Lost Boys resettlement was eagerly awaited for over a year and a half, then they all came at once."

Delgado has good reason to remember the Lost Boys, a wave of Sudanese orphans that fled the country's civil wars in the 1980s and 1990s. He and his wife became foster parents to two of them.

As the arriving volunteers walked past, Delgado lamented the sea change in public discourse since he served as Lansing-area resettlement director for Afghan refugees after 9/11. "I remember, under a Republican president, how quickly we were to embrace refugees from a country that had been harboring the world's most notorious terrorist,” Delgado said. “There was no question, conservatives and liberals alike."

The response to the Syrian refugee crisis, he said, has been quite different.

"It's the same kind of situation, but our response says a lot about how we've changed as a country,” Delgado said. "But for me, Lansing's never changed."

A gray-haired woman came up to Delgado as he spoke.

"How do I get to the training?" she asked him. He sent her to the elevator.

"Go to floor T, terrace floor,” he said. “Euphemism for basement."