The Resilience of Displaced Humanity: A Study of Mid-Michigan Refugees


By Alyssa Moinet

As I began to consider the “65.3 million refugees and internally displaced people” (Musalo) that exist in today’s global society, it was difficult to fully grasp the sheer number of individual lives affected by forced migration and large-scale suffering. As I began honing my focus towards the interpersonal level, I found it even more difficult to attempt to pull personal experiences of the mass tragedy that is forced human migration, out of people who directly suffered from it, but along the way I found myself forming connections, sharing my empathy and wholly allowing myself to succumb to the voices of those I was requesting experience from.

To become one of the 65.3 Million people labeled a refugee or internally displaced person, one must fit within the internationally accepted definition:

…The international refugee definition…the individual with a well-founded fear of persecution, but the persecution has to be on account of one of these five grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group” (Musalo. Immigration Law Symposium).

While the categories seem legally quiet clear, often times the actual realities of people seeking refugee status are complex and span multiple legally or non-legally recognized categories of persecution, such as persecution based on gender and sexual orientation. As nations seek to strictly follow these guidelines for granting refugee status it can be extremely difficult for people to neatly meet the international standard.

“…The way in which the U.S. interprets those terms is a lot more mechanistic, formulaic, and there for difficult to meet the refugee definition” (Musalo. Immigration Law Symposium).

During my study of Mid-Michigan refugee resettlement I found that the stories and lives I encountered were not clean and precise narratives, but flowing concoctions of human suffering, triumph, togetherness and growth. Though my research consisted of only one semester, the lives, stories, and studies I have come in contact with spanned across years and intricate layers of life, displacement and resettlement, and because of this a deep and rich narrative has unfolded in front of me throughout my time in this field of research.

As I have considered the interviews, field notes, observations and data I have gathered throughout this semester I will attempt to reflect the fluidity and humanity I have seen and heard in order to recount, in the most accurate way possible, what it means to be a resettled or student refugee in Mid-Michigan. This narrative will consider the resilience and strength of refugee populations and the major factors that influence refugee experiences in Mid-Michigan, such as: what type of refugee they are—resettled in the U.S. or on student visa/scholarship, the emphasis placed on English language learning, and the benefits of in-group support.

Methods:

During my ethnographic journey I conducted three interviews with members of the Mid-Michigan refugee population in an effort to collect life experiences, thoughts and opinions on the resettlement process in Mid-Michigan. Along with interviewing members of the refugee community, I began volunteering at the Refugee Development Center (RDC) in Lansing during a weekly English Language Learning workshop. This allowed me to teach lessons and experience direct interaction between refugees and the RDC, one of the largest resources offered to refugee populations in the Greater Lansing area. I attended the 5th Annual Symposium for Immigrants’ Rights Under International Law at Michigan State University’s College of Law to gain an understanding of the laws and policies in place regarding refugee status and resettlement. These experiences along with extensive research done on my subject matter, guided my understanding and formed the framework for this study, as it progressed into a narrative of the lives and experiences of Mid-Michigan refugee populations and their active and intentional movements in new physical and cultural spaces.

Introduction of Interview Participants:

Participant 1:

My first participant was Sasa Kukic, a 25-year-old Serbian man who was resettled during his childhood in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I knew Sasa before this study began as a hilarious, charismatic friend I had met over the summer of 2016. As I listened to Sasa’s story of human displacement and resettlement, I found a new depth to Sasa that I hadn’t seen before, and perhaps a new reason behind his smile and the strength he exuded in his interactions with others.

 “The Breakup of Yugoslavia.” United States Department of State: Offices of the
Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs. Web. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1989-1992/breakup-yugoslavia

Sasa’s parents found themselves caught in political, religious and nationality based persecution in the midst of the Yugoslavian Civil War in the 1980s and the consequential political unrest in the 1990s. During the war, Yugoslavia broke up into three nations by religious affiliation: Croatia and Catholicism, Serbia and Orthodox Christianity, and Bosnia and Islam. With a Croatian Catholic mother and a Serbian Orthodox father, Sasa’s immediate family was complexly woven into the tense political unrest. Sasa’s extended family did not approve of his parent’s marriage because of the ethnic and religious differences between them; this made it difficult for his immediate family to find support within the chaos of the war. Despite fitting into multiple legal categories of persecution, Sasa’s family did not receive U.S. refugee status easily or quickly as seen in the interview transcription below:

Gaining Refugee Status Transcription:

S: So during that time my parents kept like applying to move or like to be refugees or get taken to another country like the United States… so they started applying um for a visa or whatever you want to call it…

A: Yeah

S: In 1990, and it took eleven years for them to finally get accepted

(Kukic, Sasa. Interview. (00:01:45-00:02:20).

When Sasa family finally attained refugee status they were resettled in Grand Rapids, Michigan, through Catholic Human Services, a religiously affiliated charity that focuses its efforts on mid and northern Michigan.

Catholic Humans Transcription:

S: So we came to Grand Rapids um, and this was all done through um, Catholic Human I think,

A: Okay

S: Was the church. So like they were the sponsors for the visa and all that and then they got us an apartment and furniture and all this stuff

(Kukic, Sasa. Interview. (00:05:19-00:05:38).

Catholic Human Services, and other similar non-profit organizations are designed to help families and individuals like Sasa and his family find a home, locate their community resources, and provide assistance with finding and attaining financial support.

As Sasa’s family settled into their new community in Grand Rapids, Sasa and his older brother found a strong support system within the Grand Rapids Public School system. Both Sasa and his brother became fluent in English within their first six months in the U.S., despite their parent’s continued struggle with the language (Kukic, Sasa. Interview). Sasa went on to graduate from East Kentwood High School and attend Grand Valley State University, earning a Bachelor’s degree in Finance. He currently works in Holland, Michigan as a Finance Associate at Haworth, a furnishing company based in West Michigan.

Participant 2:

Noor Ali, a Somali international student at Michigan State University was recommended to me for this study through Professor Riley’s colleague, Damaris Choti, Assistant to the Director of African Studies at Michigan State, who felt that Noor would be a willing and influential participant. Damaris Choti was correct is assuming that Noor, an outspoken and prominent member of the undergraduate MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program at MSU, would be an excellent key informant for my study. When I met with Noor, I worried about asking him to share his journey of forced migration and hardship, as a stranger that he was meeting for the first time. As I continued in conversation with him this worried diminished as his honesty, heart, and awe-inspiring perseverance poured out in front of me.

“Eastern African Map.” Global City Map. Web.
http://www.chinatourmap.com/world-maps/africa/east-africa-map.html

In Somalia a dictator named Mohamed Siad Barre was in power from “October 1969, when he led a bloodless military coup against the elected government, until January 1991, when he was overthrown in a bloody civil war” (“Mohamed Siad Barre”). While the overthrowing of the dictatorship was seen as positive, Noor said that even after Mohamed Siad Barre was out of power, the rebel groups continued to persecute members of the old dictators tribe (Ali, Noor. Interview). This made it extremely difficult for political organization to occur, creating a roughly 15-year period where no formal government was in place in Somalia (Ali, Noor. Interview). Noor’s family was thus forced to leave Somalia or continue living in the chaotic and dangerous aftermath of the civil war.

Upon resettling in a refugee camp in the neighboring country of Kenya, life did not get easier or simpler for the Ali’s. Noor’s parents divorced under the pressure and trauma of resettling and Noor lived in extremely poor health until he was 10 years old (Ali, Noor. Interview). But despite years of hardship, poor health and the emotional toll of both forced migration and the deteriorating of his family structure, Noor survived and began thriving in his studies. Noor scored 72/84 points on a major exam, giving him the second best score of any student in his area (Ali, Noor. Interview) and opening the door for a wide range of opportunities.

After high school, Noor began teaching classes in Chemistry and Math and was able to better support his family through his teaching. With some of the money he earned, he purchased a laptop and slowly started to learn English from movies and TV shows. During his time teaching he became aware of The MasterCard Foundation Scholarship program, which provides full-tuition scholarships to students from sub-Saharan African countries that “have demonstrate academic talent, are economically disadvantaged, and have a personal commitment to serve their countries or regions of origin” (The MasterCard Foundation). When Noor applied for the MasterCard Foundation scholarship program at Michigan State University he distinctly recalled a friend saying:

This is the beginning, you know” (Ali, Noor. Interview).

This hopeful memory made Noor’s body language change mid-sentence, and I was deeply moved by his ability to focus on and channel his past excitement and joy despite having shared his extreme hardships just moments before. Noor began to live this new beginning in 2015 when he was accepted into Michigan State University with the full-ride MasterCard Foundation scholarship and is currently studying Chemical Engineering.

Participant 3:

The third participant that I interviewed was Florence Uwimbabazi, a MasterCard Foundation Scholarship recipient from Rwanda who is in graduate school at Michigan State University. I came in contact with Florence again through Professor Riley, and was immediately aware of how busy and extremely driven Florence is. Scheduling an interview with Florence took two weeks, and she could only give me half an hour of her time as she had several meeting directly after mine. When I asked if I could record the interview there was a deep sense of mistrust and nervousness that filled the air around us, she seemed to be focused on me as a stranger whose intent seemed difficult to read. I quickly told her that recording was optional and I was thankful to find a relaxation replace the tension in the air, as Florence slowly opened up to me during our interview I found her story was laced with a deep passion for life and the rights of others.

Florence and her family left Rwanda because of a gruesome civil war taking place that eventually erupted into the Rwandan Genocide that was responsible for the deaths of “some 800, 000 people” (“Rwandan Genocide”). The intense political tension was deeply rooted in a history of power struggles between the Hutu ethnic majority and the Tutsi minority—the targets of the genocide (“Rwandan Genocide”). Due to this complicated politically and ethnically charged war within Rwanda, Florence’s family fled to a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where all eight family members lived in one tent (Uwimbabazi, Florence. Interview). In the camp, Florence’s sister experienced extreme health issues from contaminated water, and though her sister survived, Florence saw countless other women whose health was equally as poor and even less accounted for (Uwimbabazi, Florence. Interview). Eventually Florence’s family left the refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo and resettled in Kenya, but this memory stuck with Florence.

While living in Kenya, Florence learned Swahili and English in primary school and high school, where she formed close friendships that she still maintains to this day (Uwimbabazi, Florence. Interview). While Florence and her siblings were learning several languages in school, her parents were learning language strictly through interaction with their neighbors, at the market, and during any other small informal social interaction.

Florence returned to Rwanda for University where she studied Computer Sciences, it was during this time that Florence heard about the MasterCard Foundation scholarship from a close high school friend who was in the program at the time. Florence applied and received the MasterCard Foundation scholarship for the Public Relations Graduate program at Michigan State University in 2015. Despite being extremely busy with her work in graduate school, Florence has been a huge advocate for gender equality and female rights within refugee camps and the sphere of public relations (Uwimbabazi, Florence. Interview).

Emphasis on English Language Learning:

            Because of the importance of language in everyday interactions, English language learning is extremely important in primarily English-speaking areas. Organizations like the Refugee Development Center (RDC) in Lansing are created to fill gaps in support and assistance in language learning, as resettlement agencies and University orientation programs do not usually prioritize it. During my time as a volunteer with the RDC, I worked in English Language Learning workshops where members of the refugee community actively sought out and utilized “socially and culturally responsible educational and language programs” (Burns).

As children learn language skills in school, adults are often times left with informal English speaking interactions as there primary source of language acquisition when resources like the RDC programs are not offered in their area. This was evident in Sasa’s experience with learning English, when asked if he or his parents had access to programs like the RDC in Grand Rapids:

Learning English Transcription:

S: Not really, I mean it was kind of learn as you go,

A: Yeah

S: Especially for my parents, I mean it was easy for my brother and I because I mean we got put into school here and…

A: Right

S: You just kind of learn, especially when you’re so young,

A: Mhm

S: You just pick things up so much faster.

A: Definitely

S: But for my parents, I mean it took time; they were 31, I think, when we came here. So, I mean you kind of learn the things you have to, like going to the grocery store,

A: Right

S: And then they got jobs and kind of learned,

A: Mhm

S: But I think they, um, they’ve done a great job, I mean their, I’d say fluent, I mean obviously they have accents,

A: Yeah

S: and stuff like that but I would say they do whatever they want you know what I mean?

(Kukic, Sasa. Interview. (00:06:30-00:07:15).     

 

 

As I spoke with my other participants, I found a similar patterns in their narratives of language learning: where school supported language skills, there parents were left with little to no formal language support upon resettlement. The experiences I was seeing and hearing began to fit eerily well into the findings of countless studies that suggest that “refugee children tend to acquire conversational ability in the language of their new country faster than their parents” (McBrien). While children are expected to be reading writing and speaking English everyday in school, adults are expected to find a job as quickly as possible to continue supporting their families and themselves individually.

But finding work in a place where you do not speak the language is extremely difficult, and often times leads adult refugees to find work outside of the career field they left in their home country. This is because their “expertise and knowledge [no longer] match with the occupations on offer” due to a “loss of linguistic and cultural knowledge” (McBrien). Meaning that more often than not, the jobs available to refugees are ones with low interpersonal interaction, which creates a cycle of difficultly learning the language as the adult refugee becomes cemented into a position with minimal daily interpersonal conversation in English (McBrien).

In-Group Support Systems:

            Sitting in the lobby of the International Center at Michigan State University with Noor for our interview, there was an overwhelming amount of people that approached him during our brief time together; most of whom, Noor explained were other scholars in the MasterCard Foundation program. Throughout the interview Noor mentioned that though he was close with a lot of American students on campus, when he first arrived he wouldn’t tell people that he was a refugee because he did not want the stigma or attention that might accompany this part of him (Ali, Noor. Interview). But this was never an issue with other students within the MasterCard Foundation, whose goals and experiences seemed to mirror his own and allow him to be the person he wanted to be, without constant consideration and explanation of his past (Ali, Noor. Interview).

The in-group support Noor found within the other MasterCard Foundation scholars, was similar to the in-group support Sasa took solace in upon arriving in the United States at age nine:

In-Group Support Transcription:

S: See I was lucky that, um, I started at Grand Rapids Public Schools, which had a lot of um, Bosnian Families.

A: Oh okay

S: Like Bosnian kids, so when I got there I actually had someone that would like help me out and like show me the ropes, I suppose. And then my um…I was really lucky in the fact that my English as second language teacher was actually from Croatia.

A: Oh wow!

S: So like…that was different in the fact that I could actually connect with her, and like…

A: Right

S: She understood what I was going through

(Kukic, Sasa. Interview. (00:09:08-00:09:42).

During the “maintenance and reconstruction of an extensive social capital” (Lamba) it can be extremely beneficial to have social ties with similar people, such as family members, friends, or community members, who personally understand one another’s life experiences. What many studies have shown is that familial, ethnic, cultural and linguistic “group solidarity is a key factor in fostering immigrant’s economic adaptation” as well as “providing newly arrived refugees and immigrants with access to accommodation, employment information and a range of community benefits including friendship and marital prospect”(Lamba).

While it is possible to successfully resettle without in-group support, a lack of it can lead to moments of overwhelming emotional and psychological distress not only in wake of past trauma, but in the immediate loss of the “strong positive effect of social capital” (Lamba) found within in-group support systems. I witnessed an instance of this upwelling of emotional distress at the RDC when one of our regular students was asked to read an article about family. Immediately upon being handed the article, our student was visibly burdened and began to cry. She later explained that she had resettled alone and all of her family and friends were back in her home country trying to attain refugee status. While the RDC offered help and consolation as much as possible, when refugee populations lack close in-group support, it seems to take a major toll on their happiness and health during the resettlement period.

 

Conclusion:

As we consider refugees, legally, culturally and politically, on a global and local scale, we must consider the humanity and great strength within these groups of persecuted and forcibly moved peoples. Out of the chaotic workings of my interviews, observation hours, and scholarly research, I have discovered first hand the dynamics and importance of resources associated with English language learning, and the positive benefits of having in-group support systems. As I have drawn these connections and seen the narratives unfold they have lead to one conclusion:

“Refugees are remarkably resilient in their quest for a new life in a new country” (Lamba).

Every theme and connection I have drawn has been intricately laced with an active and beautiful strength that comes from the refugee population in Mid-Michigan. The popular notion of a refugee as a “dependent role, characterized primarily by need and helplessness” was utterly struck down as I looked into the hearts and minds of my participants, dove into literature and scholarly articles, and worked with the RDC. I saw a group of people, who are not defined by their trauma, or their struggle, but by their perseverance and resilience.

While many adult refugees do struggle to learn English upon arrival, I saw countless adults seeking guidance and utilizing their language resources. When our student began to cry about her family and lack of in-group support, she came back the next week eager to learn once again. Looking into the future, as we consider the mass forced migration of refugees and internally displaced people, we must continue to acknowledge the trauma and hardships they have faced, but we must also learn to stop defining them only by their struggle. We must learn to consider the humanity and great strength refugee populations have found within themselves that allow them to become “highly active agents in their own resettlement,” (Lamba) in the Mid-Michigan community and around the globe.

 

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