Families coming to Michigan from Afghanistan join the long history of shared struggle and accomplishment with over a century of Armenians, Iraqis, Syrians and others fleeing danger.
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—With thousands of families seeking to escape the situation in Afghanistan, hundreds are coming to Michigan. That makes Maryam Masood’s work increasingly important.
Masood is a student at the University of Michigan focused on organizational studies, which she describes as a mix of sociology, psychology, and economics. Masood is a leader in the Michigan Refugee Assistance Program, or MIRAP. Her organization was founded by students at the University of Michigan and focuses on coordinating volunteer opportunities for students to work directly with resettlement groups, as well as help educate young Michiganders about issues related to families who settled in Michigan.
“It’s a lot of unknown uncertainty for refugees coming in,” she told The ‘Gander. “They don’t know where they’ll be going, a lot of times they don’t know the language and that’s a large barrier to things like figuring out very basic things—like where to get groceries, where can my kids go to school, how can my kids get extra help if they need it?”
Masood says that MIRAP’s volunteer work tends to center around easing that transition into Michigan life. She characterized the work as helping these new community members learn to navigate parts of American life—things that those raised in Michigan may take for granted.
The Cold Welcome on Masood’s Campus
On Sunday, Sept. 12, an incident on Masood’s campus brought the need for MIRAP’s role as community educators into a national spotlight: Stickers were found attached to buildings around East Hall. Bearing the name of fringe right-wing Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group Proud Boys, one sticker was a mock “Afghan refugee hunting permit” designed in the group’s aesthetic.
That sticker, as well as several others, were found by transfer student Alex Williams, who removed around a dozen stickers. She also reported the stickers to campus security to have the remaining stickers around campus removed.
Another sticker used the initials RWDS, which stand for Right-Wing Death Squad according to Newsweek.
Masood told The ‘Gander that the University of Michigan, and Ann Arbor in general, has more people like Williams and few like the person responsible for the messages on those stickers.
“It’s always alarming to see that kind of hatred,” Masood said. “I do think that kind of resentment exists all over. It’s really sad to see that happening, but I’m not really surprised, I guess.”
That kind of message runs counter to Masood’s values. MIRAP is not a political or partisan group, and to her the issue of supporting people fleeing dangerous situations is a humanitarian one, not a political one. Motivated by seeing her grandmother provide charitable services to the community in Florida where she grew up instilled the ethic of community service in her, outside of any political consideration. And to her, opposing this radical and violent message on her campus isn’t left-versus-right, it’s about being a good ally to the coming Afghan neighbors.
So she’s focusing on what MIRAP can do following these stickers.
“Being able to respond to what’s happening, to let people know it’s not okay, is really important,” she said. “I think when there’s silence after something like this happens it can be a little bit dangerous because there’s a lot of pressure if you’re the person on the other end of that message, if you’re a refugee, to speak on behalf of your community.”
With new neighbors coming to the Mitten facing this welcome from fringe elements of Ann Arbor’s community, Masood, herself the daughter of an immigrant, says MIRAC is looking for productive ways to respond to the actions on her campus. But, she reminded The ‘Gander, though those views exist, they aren’t what most Michiganders value.
Masood is aware of the balancing act allies to refugees play in moments like this, relieving that pressure by speaking out themselves without speaking over or speaking for people on experiences they’ve not personally had, but stressed the importance of striking that balance, especially for families who are, mostly, not yet settled in Michigan to speak themselves.
Afghan Families Join Michigan’s Long History
There are, certainly, struggles both to acclimate and be accepted by the community that await newly-arrived Michiganders on arrival, but for over a century the Mitten has tried to be a welcoming place.
From small business owners to state leaders, refugees and their descendants have a long history of strengthening Michigan communities. That’s a legacy over a thousand new voices will soon join.
“As Afghan families flee violence and political persecution, it is our duty and honor to welcome them with that fundamental Michigan spirit of friendliness,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement. “The State of Michigan embraces the opportunity to welcome Afghan families as they find a new home to begin their lives.”
The families coming to Michigan today are classified as both refugees and asylum seekers. While the broad strokes of what those terms mean are the same, the key difference is that people seeking asylum go through most of the process in the US whereas people seeking refugee status go through most of the process overseas. But the process both kinds of families coming for a fresh start undergo is similar, and the experiences they find in Michigan are largely the same.
What Michigan Means to People Fleeing Violence
Tetusa Ndalamba prayed on the plane.
And his life changed on Dec. 3, 2012, when he stood on American soil for the first time.
He described his flight as surreal in a 2017 interview with Rapid Growth. A healthcare worker like his mother, Ndalamba came to Michigan as a refugee, fleeing from the dangers posed to him and his family by the horrible war that had raged through his home in the Democratic Republic of Congo. When his parents, siblings, and closest friends were claimed by the violence, he turned to refugee status.
“I did not believe it was happening until I was here, until I saw my wife and children,” he told Rapid Growth. “I kept telling myself on the plane, ‘I’m leaving this life to start a new life. A new life. A new life.’”
Now, Ndalamba is certified as a daycare operator in Grand Rapids with his family. And more than a thousand Afghans are now seeking that same opportunity to rebuild their lives.
Michigan has long opened its arms to welcome people in danger overseas. Those fleeing Iraq, Syria, Congo, and other countries have sought security and new lives in Michigan, becoming part of communities from across the state and building new lives.
Michigan is preparing for more than a thousand new stories of soon-to-be neighbors seeking safety, this time escaping violence in Afghanistan. And those new neighbors can accomplish great things with the fresh start they find in the Mitten, there are a lot of challenges families face before getting to that point.
Masood explained that it’s largely charitable organizations that help new Michiganders find their way through the process, which can be tricky and confusing even in good circumstances. That’s why her organization seeks volunteer opportunities to help with organizations that aid their new neighbors’ resettlement. Freedom House Detroit is one such organization.
Freedom House Detroit is Michigan’s most established one-stop-shop for services provided to families fleeing to Michigan for safety. For nearly 40 years, the organization has provided housing, legal aid, financial support, and other transition services to people escaping dangerous situations. Freedom House Detroit is a trailblazer, CEO Deborah Drennan told The ‘Gander.
Drennan came to Freedom House as a career social worker and has loved helping those fleeing dangerous situations find their peace in Michigan, even though the road to that outcome is as bumpy as any other in the Mitten.
And in her decade of leading the organization, Drennan has learned a lot about what people like the soon-to-be neighbors from Afghanistan face both before and after coming to Michigan, including a challenge she says most people don’t realize exist in this situation.
“An asylum seeker, when they come to the United States, is not eligible to earn an income during the asylum process,” she explained. “People who come and need asylum need a place to live, and how do they do that if you can’t work? And they need a lawyer, and how do you do that if you can’t earn an income? They need to see a doctor, how do you do that if you don’t have insurance?”
For these families, working before being granted a permit is a violation of federal law. Having a job, she explained, could jeopardize their asylum claim and ultimately result in them being sent back to wherever they came from, which Drennan reminded must be a situation where the person faced dangers likely and specific enough that they can be clearly articulated in the American legal system.
“It’s a really specific law,” she said of the framework around the US asylum system. “It’s not just ‘There’s a horrible thing happening in my country, I’m afraid, I’ve got to go.’ That’s not an asylum seeker. An asylum seeker is someone who says ‘The government came after me, these are the examples of the torture, this is how I fled, this is how I got out of the country, this is my story.’”
For most Americans in such a precarious position, programs like food assistance or Medicaid exist for those unable to work, but these families also can’t access those services while going through the asylum process. Freedom House helps support new Michiganders during this time, which usually lasts six months or longer, and uses it to help teach their clients about American resume styles and interview practices so when their work permit is issued, a person Freedom House works with is set up for success.
That, Drennan explained, is why places like Freedom House exist. But that isn’t the only thing the nonprofit does to help these new Michiganders through the process of becoming part of their new community.
“There’s so many things people face when they come to the country,” she said. “We’re located in a brilliantly vibrant southwest Detroit community. Our neighbors welcome our clients, they welcome us. We live there, we work there, we play there. Southwest Detroit is our place. And even being welcome there, there’s still that looking over your shoulder of ‘is someone following me, did my country find out I was here?’ Now imagine being on the other side of that, where people aren’t as welcoming and aren’t as thoughtful.”
That fear, pervasive in the clients Drennan serves, doesn’t come from just anywhere. It isn’t uncommon for family and friends of someone who has fled to the US to be placed in immediate danger, she said. And that knowledge leads to a lot of anxiety and survivor’s guilt. Freedom House does its best to provide services to help with this psychological torment as well.
And for this mission, Drennan needs Michiganders’ support. Working directly with families coming to Michigan for safety, like Masood’s organization does, is a great way to support people in hard-to-fathom situations, but Freedom House has a variety of ways to help out which you can learn about on their website.