Michigan agencies react to refugee, migration crisis

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By Eric Czarnik
Jumhoria Kaskorkis, from the Chaldean Community Foundation in Sterling Heights, helps a man with his green card. (Photo by Donna Agusti)
[click to enlarge]
Program manager Sharon Hannawa, center, helps a man with some paperwork at the Chaldean Community Foundation as interpreter Balsam Sadik looks on.

Michigan politicians and charitable relief agencies are keeping an eye on the migrant and refugee crisis in Europe as hundreds of thousands of people are leaving Syria, other Middle Eastern nations and some African nations in recent weeks and months.

In September, the Obama administration announced that the United States is planning to accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the 2016 fiscal year, and some politicians, such as U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, have called for accepting even more.

If Syrians are able to emigrate to the U.S., it is still unclear how many may make it to Michigan. Dave Murray, deputy press secretary for Gov. Rick Snyder, said refugees are “totally, completely covered by the federal government in terms of how they’re placed or where they’re placed.”

“It’s very premature to talk about them in Michigan at this point,” Murray said. “But the governor has said that Michigan is a welcoming state, and we are open to talking to federal leaders to see if there is a potential role that Michigan could play right now. It is very early in that process.”

Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean Community Foundation, said the refugee and migrant situation in Europe caught the world’s attention, but he said migration has been happening for a while as people try to escape the Islamic State, civil war and the destabilization of the Middle East.

Manna said he wonders why the surrounding Middle Eastern countries, such as Saudi Arabia, aren’t doing more to help Syrian war refugees.

“There needs to be a long-term solution,” he said. “We still have more than 1 million Chaldeans displaced because of the Iraq war.”

Manna said the Chaldean Community Foundation, located in Bingham Farms and Sterling Heights, is on course to serve around 18,000 people this year, including refugees, and the foundation will be moving into an expanded facility in Sterling Heights in November.

Although he said most of the people who request aid are Chaldean — a traditionally Christian, Aramaic-speaking people — the foundation “helps everyone who walks through the door.”

Manna said his nonprofit agency has English learning programs and assists its clients with finding a job, establishing a line of credit, securing a car loan, acquiring health insurance and more.

“We try to help them to get on a path of independence so they get off government subsidies,” he said.

Christine Sauve, coordinator for Welcoming Michigan, said her group’s mission is to promote mutual understanding and respect among U.S.-born people, immigrants and refugees in Michigan. While it doesn’t directly provide services, it has a network of groups that provide such assistance, she said.

Sauve said Welcoming Michigan works with service agencies, community members and its other partners to make refugee resettlement a reality. She said those groups are preparing for the eventual arrival of more refugees so that services can be coordinated and in place.

However, she said the refugees and migrants currently moving into Europe are not imminently coming to the United States.

“It does take a while for things to work in the process,” she explained. “The people who are fleeing now will probably take a year or so until we see them in our communities in Michigan.”

Sauve said one of her group’s partners, Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, has already resettled 62 people from Syria to places within the state this year, but those were not part of the group that is migrating into Europe.

She also said preparations are being made for potentially accepting more refugees, and she believes that her group and its partners are able to withstand a future influx. She said refugees get initial support through the federal government, and immigration support groups work to help the newcomers get jobs.

“We have a strong history of refugee resettlement, so we have the infrastructure in place,” she said. “Many of the Syrian refugees have high levels of education, specifically in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.”

A Sept. 3-7 YouGov poll found that only 26 percent of Americans who responded said the U.S. should accept more than around 1,000 refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war, and 30 percent said the U.S. should accept fewer.

State Sen. Jack Brandenburg, R-Harrison Township, said he didn’t know the circumstances or the federal guidelines on bringing in refugees, but added that if he had to make the call on whether to accept refugees or migrants, he would not bring them here.

“I think we have more than enough problems on people entering our country and the citizens not knowing the status of these people and where they are going to stay and whatnot,” he said.

“It’s a tough call. It really is. It’s very obvious that these people need help. The only question I have is, how large of a role can the U.S. have in helping people around the planet?”

Brandenburg said he didn’t know whether refugees or migrants whose origins come from a war-torn Middle Eastern nation would be adequately vetted to make sure they aren’t a danger to Americans.

“I read this morning that President Obama wants to take in 10,000 more,” Brandenburg said. “Who are these people? What kind of security risk do they pose? None of that has been written about, and I’m leery about it. … I think we got to draw the line somewhere.”

Learn more about state Sen. Jack Brandenburg by visiting www.senatorjackbrandenburg.com or by calling (517) 373-7670. Find out more about the Chaldean Community Foundation by visiting www.chaldeanfoundation.org or by calling (586) 722-7253. Welcoming Michigan can be contacted by visiting www.welcoming michigan.org or by calling (269) 492-7196.