Samaritas’ First 24 Hours

So we’ve already discussed the process of registering at a UN refugee camp, being referred for third country resettlement, the refugee vetting process for admission into the U.S., the outsourcing of refugee resettlement services to nine major NGOs (VOLAGs), and the subsequent arrival of refugees to the over 350 local affiliates nationwide. Now, pause a moment, and think about how long that might take…years.

This post will take a look at the roles of local affiliates that do the “on-the-ground” work with refugee resettlement, in this case, Samaritas in Grand Rapids.

First, a few fast facts:

  • Samaritas in GR resettled 576 individuals in 2016 fiscal year
  • The origins of refugees resettled in GR by Samaritas are as follows:
    • 55% Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19% Burma/Myanmar, 8% Bhutan, 5% Somali, 3% Eritrea, 3% Syria, 2% Iraq, 2% South Sudan, 1% Sudan, 1% Burundi, 1% Other

So, what are case workers’ roles at Samaritas? Here is what the first 24 hours of resettlement looks like…

🕑  Refugee arrivals will be picked up from the Gerald R. Ford International airport in Grand Rapids and taken to their new leased, prepared, and furnished home or the home of their U.S. tie, where a hot meal is waiting for them. Upon arriving at the home, a mandatory safety tour of the home is given. For example, case workers will show clients how to use the thermostat/heat, how to use the toilet, refrigerator, stove, oven, microwave, etc. The home will have a stocked pantry upon arrival with enough food to last until the issuance of their MI Bridges card, a state and federally-funded food assistance program. Within 24 hours of arrival, case workers will visit clients to go over a cultural orientation and sign several documents, including the International Office of Migrations’ zero interest travel loan document stating clients responsibility to pay back the cost of their international flight.

You may be wondering, but where does the money come from to lease a house, furnish it, and stock it with food?! To which I will answer in parts. First, the government allots $925 per individual refugee to be spent on rent, furniture, a mobile phone, food, and season-specific clothing according to the season in which they arrive (i.e. A January arrival will receive a winter coat and boots, but not shorts or sandals). It goes without saying, that that amount is far too little, which is where the kindness and generosity of several organizations in the community come into play. For furniture, a faith-based non-profit based in nearby Hudsonville called Love, Inc works extensively with Samaritas to find furniture, which they donate for free. The furniture donations of other faith communities and individuals are also incredibly helpful in being able to spend the $925 on other things. Places such as Goodwill, St. Vincent, and Salvation Army are also outlets for finding affordable furniture.

While learning about the furnishing process, I immediately thought of the array of perfectly good couches, futons, bookshelves, coffee tables, desks, and chairs that find their way into the long dumpsters of apartment complexes during Grand Valley college students’ “move-out” week. I’m telling you – some great stuff is thrown out. I would love to somehow organize the inspection and collection of those items and see them go to this great (and much needed) cause…

In regards to housing, I also want to note the current housing crisis that the Grand Rapids community is facing. The rapidly growing city now has the lowest vacancy rate in the nation at 1.6%, compared to the national average of 7%, according to a 2015 Zillow study. This fact makes finding housing, let along affordable housing, a major challenge for refugee resettlement agencies. However, on the flip side, the booming city makes finding clients a job a bit easier!

Other organizations help specifically with clothing needs, such as the Grand Rapids faith-based non-profit In the Image. Samaritas has a standing appointment with ITI and relies heavily on their clothing and material item donations in providing for clients.

Personal Note: Through my hands-on experience as a volunteer ESL tutor through Samaritas last semester, as well as my research internship with Samaritas this semester, I have gained such a valuable perspective towards the true value of donated items. We all do it – we grow out of clothes and shoes, or simply no longer wear things that we deem “out of style,” a privilege that we are lucky to be able to have! However, there are people and places that are always in-need so I really encourage you to give your unwanted items to one of the mentioned non-profits. 🙂

You may also be wondering, wait, how can any of this happen (efficiently) when the client and case worker do not share a common language?! Which is a great question. Interpreters must be called on, when possible, and improvisation must be called on, if not. Fortunately, English is becoming a world language that some clients, particularly the younger generations, have a basic grasp of. Another advantage of Samaritas in GR has been their ability to hire former refugees as case workers, who bring not only rich cultural diversity and first-hand experience to the staff, but they also bring a skill lost on many Americans: bi- or multilingualism! This is another reason why I think programs such as the Critical Language Scholarship and Boren Scholarship are so necessary and great.

That’s all for now. I hope you’ve gotten a better understanding of what goes into each and every resettlement case and what those first 24 hours in the United States looks like for a client resettled in West Michigan!

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