Nedal Al Hayek plays with his son, Taym, and daughter, Layal, outside their new home on July 28, 2015 in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. The family, including Nedals wife, Raeda, fled Syria after he was beaten and tortured by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad. Nedal says he still worries for the safety of his extended family in Syria. Since the war started the United States has resettled under 1,500 refugees, despite over 12,000 applications. This fall, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that least 10,000 displaced Syrians will be allowed into the United states over the next year. This announcement was followed up by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announcing the United States would accept 85,000 refugees from around the world next year and that total would rise to 100,000 in 2017. Photo by Andrew Renneisen via Getty
Nedal Al Hayek plays with his son, Taym, and daughter, Layal, outside their new home on July 28, 2015 in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. The family, including Nedals wife, Raeda, fled Syria after he was beaten and tortured by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad. Nedal says he still worries for the safety of his extended family in Syria. Since the war started the United States has resettled under 1,500 refugees, despite over 12,000 applications. This fall, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that least 10,000 displaced Syrians will be allowed into the United states over the next year. This announcement was followed up by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announcing the United States would accept 85,000 refugees from around the world next year and that total would rise to 100,000 in 2017.

Over 1,000 people fleeing Afghanistan are looking to make a new home, and are ready to help Michigan communities grow.

LANSING, Mich.—For over a century, Michigan has opened its arms to those fleeing from places of global crisis. Families who came to the state under extraordinarily trying circumstances have gone on to be neighbors, business owners, and community leaders in towns across the state.

And now, the state is rising to the occasion again.

After fleeing a situation that becomes more dangerous every day, people escaping Afghanistan sit in American military bases, waiting for a new home. And for more than a thousand, that new home is Michigan.

The day those new lives begin won’t come as soon as hoped, either by the soon-to-be Michiganders or those waiting to assist in the transition to a new life, but it is coming. A fresh start, free from Taliban-incited, genuine fear, is coming.

It prompted Michigan, which has a history going back over a century of welcoming families and people seeking safety from similar global crises, to again open it’s arms and pour forth support for those escaping the turmoil overseas. 

The state’s history with that welcoming approach is long. Those fleeing Iraq, Syria, Congo, and other countries have sought security and a fresh, safe start in Michigan, becoming part of communities from across the state and building new lives.

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Now, Michigan is preparing for more than a thousand new stories of families and people seeking safety, this time escaping violence in Afghanistan. And Michiganders are, by and large, showing an outpouring of support for those families.

“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.”

To get an idea of what these Afghan families will be able to contribute to local communities, it can be helpful to look at what other new neighbors escaping crisis have gone through, and been able to contribute, as Michigan’s newest neighbors.

How New Voices Help Michigan Communities Grow

People fleeing crises often bring skills, families, and a true melting pot experience like those revered in American history when coming to Michigan. 

Some carry faith as a rock to help manage the struggles of acclimating to a new environment under difficult circumstances. Some carry the inspiration of the generations before and how those ancestors built a family to inspire building a new life in Michigan. Some, like Congolese immigrant fleeing civil war and Grand Rapids-area daycare owner Tetusa Ndalamba, bring skills and values Michigan communities may need. 

Those all can make a community stronger, Deborah Drennan believes.

Drennan is the CEO of Freedom House Detroit, a place in southwest Detroit that offers all the services people fleeing crises need. Freedom House not only offers housing, but also helps  prepare resettled families for the American job market by teaching resume and interview customs found in Michigan that may be different from those a person coming to find safety are accustomed to.

“Everybody has something they bring with them,” she said. “What if they move in and take care of this abandoned house? What if they move in and we all get together and set a precedent that not in my neighborhood—no drugs, no violence, you know. What if we formed a community group with our neighbors, including those [asylum seekers]? What if jobs became more plentiful, what if they opened businesses so now we have someplace to go and dine?”

Drennan’s questions have data backing them up. Ndalamba starting a daycare is part of a broader trend of immigrants, including families fleeing crisis, being a major source of growth in the small business economy nationwide. 

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In nearby Livonia, Congressional Representative Haley Stevens (D) has seen the role of immigrants, both those coming for opportunity and those fleeing danger, in Michigan’s local economies for years. She’s also seen excitement in her community over the idea of new entrepreneurs among the Afghan families coming to Michigan. 

Stevens told The ‘Gander that one woman in her community wanted to use her business to host workshops for Afghan women immigrating to Michigan to foster entrepreneurship in both making and selling products and help the local economy grow.

“And it was so inspiring to hear her come to me with that idea and already be thinking through around those pathways to entrepreneurship,” Stevens said. “There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity for Michigan here, with these refugees, to integrate them into our economy and to empower them as business owners.” 

New Voices Strengthen the Michigan Experience

On top of the economic benefits, there’s a unique sense of solidarity at Freedom House that Drennan has found inspiring in her own life. She used to have the common anxiety people have around languages she doesn’t speak, for instance, but has learned that between facial expressions, context, and technology helping her translate, that worry isn’t something she feels anymore. 

Drennan came to Freedom House as a career social worker and has loved helping people fleeing dangerous situations find peace in Michigan, even though the road to that outcome is as bumpy as any other in the Mitten. It’s that sort of experience that makes the job so deeply woven into her life today, a decade into her leadership of Freedom House.

She also takes inspiration for dealing with personal anxieties in how people in the worst situations manage to endure. Struggles like dealing with the pandemic or low wages aren’t unimportant, but by comparing them to the experiences of someone tortured in another country it grants a perspective on dealing with unimaginable stress and strain.

At Freedom House, tensions do flare. People are going through a lot. The biggest asset Drennan says Freedom House has is not reacting “from the hip,” and instead taking a moment to understand the other person’s life. That, she says, is a skill everyone could use good examples of from time to time. 

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“What we want is for immigrant communities to belong,” she said. “Immigrants are going to be what sustains not only Detroit, but I believe the state of Michigan itself.”

Looking for evidence of how these new voices sustain Michigan means looking to Brimingham, where the descendant of Armenians fleeing genocide nearly a century ago today represents her community in the state’s Legislature. 

“It’s something that’s sort of the underpinning of everything I do,” State Rep. Mari Manoogian (D-Birmingham) told The ‘Gander in December. “The Armenian people, when they escaped the genocide, obviously their government was so oppressive that they were systematically killing them. They weren’t representative of the diverse population of their empire at the time.”

That lack of representation inspired Manoogian to become a voice of the people herself, providing something for her community that her family was denied during the Armenian genocide. That said, she’s not “the Armenian legislator,” she’s the Birmingham legislator.

Still, she’s proud of what her family, who came under circumstances like the Afghan families soon to arrive have fled, accomplished in just a few generations thanks to the potential Michigan offered. 

“I’m a third-generation Armenian American,” Manoogian said. “The prospect of being in a form of elected government that truly represents the people is never lost on me. I think one of the proudest moments in my time in politics has been seeing my parents in the gallery when I did a speech on the Armenian genocide for a commemorative resolution we did in the first year of my first term.”

But families fleeing to Michigan to find safe harbor need support before there can be legacies like Manoogian’s or Ndamanba’s. Drennan encouraged Michiganders to get involved in supporting programs like Freedom House, which you can learn to do on their website.