When refugees arrive at the Detroit airport, they’re often exhausted, physically and emotionally, by the weight of their journey. They may have literally have just the clothes on their backs.
And sometimes, they’re greeted by a volunteer welcoming committee of cheerful, homemade sign-wielding Michiganders.
“It’s like, here’s a bunch of six-foot blonde white people, 'Congratulations, this is your new normal,'” laughs Troy Howley, the refugee and volunteer outreach coordinator at Lutheran Social Services of Michigan.
Kidding aside: So many people in Michigan want to help – and have been helping – refugees arriving from Syria and numerous other countries.
And as the crisis continues to grow, so does the need for help here.
Here are three ways you can pitch in.
It gets really, really cold in Michigan
First off, there’s a big demand for household items. Refugee resettlement agencies (with help from donors) need to completely outfit an otherwise empty apartment for families.
So everything from toothbrushes, to furniture, to bed sheets and silverware is needed.
Lutheran Social Services of Michigan recommends putting together a “welcome box,” where you pick a room (bathroom, kitchen, pantry) and pull together items.
For example, a bathroom box could include shampoo, toothpaste, shower curtain, toilet paper – you get the idea. Food boxes should have staples with good shelf lives, like five- to ten-pound bags of rice, sugar, and flour.
And one of the biggest requests Howley says he hears from refugee families is 'Hey, it’s really cold – do you have any more blankets?'"
“Many of our clients, certainly from Syria but also from Burma and the Democratic of Congo and all over the world, are not used to just how cold it can get in Michigan,” he says. “And so we are constantly asked for more blankets, and more winter clothing."
“I’ve gone over to one family’s house before, and the heat was blasting at like 80 degrees, and every single one of the kids was in snow pants. Just hanging out inside in snow pants. So they love it when we can give them more coats, boots, hats, and scarves.”
Spend an hour with your newest neighbor
From greeting refugees at the airport, to driving them to their new home and cooking them a hot meal – there’s no shortage of ways for volunteers to help out.
If you don’t have a ton of time, Howley says even just taking a refugee family grocery shopping, or showing them how to get a library card, is huge.
“We’re always looking for people that just want to spend time with our newest neighbors,” he says. “You basically are signing up to do a choose-your-own-adventure relationship with a refugee family.”
There’s a “cultural ambassador” role, too, where you commit to spending an hour a week with a refugee family, doing daily life things. Maybe it’s driving them to a medical appointment. Maybe it’s working on English language skills.
“And in doing that we are teaching them valuable resources about our community, and also showing them they’re not alone,” Howley says. “That’s there’s people cheering them on, who care about them.”
And if you’ve got a larger group – book club, Kiwanis, church group – that wants to get involved, you can offer to host an English-as-a-second-language class, or provide a room for child-care services, or even commit to helping a refugee family pay rent for their first six months in the U.S.
Understand that most Michigan refugees are self-sufficient within six months
The other big things that refugees in Michigan really need? Advocacy and understanding.
“That ability to let your neighbors and community know that refugees are here, and they’re in need of support – all of that positive community engagement is so important,” says Howley.
Also, get a sense of how incredibly self-sustaining so many of these refugee families really are.
According to Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, 75% of Michigan refugee families are self-sufficient within six months of arriving in the U.S.
That’s pretty impressive, given a recent study found most college students weren’t even financially self-sufficient, two full years after graduation.
“These individuals are coming over willing to work hard and willing to pay their bills,” says Howley. “They’re looking to try to invest in their own lives, and better the lives of their children.”
He sees this a lot when he’s working with families on school enrollment; there’s the health department to go through, and the whole process can take about 30 days.
But recently one Iraqi family walked over to their local school just two days after arriving in the U.S. The mom, dad, and their two kids, ages three and five, all showed up on the playground during recess.
So Howley got a phone call from the school. Sure, he says, it’s weird when a bunch of strangers show up at recess.
“But the reason why they were there is that, two days after arriving, they were already thinking: How can we get our kids enrolled in school? How can we get them started on this path that we’ve created for ourselves?”
If you want to volunteer, here are two coordinators in Michigan:
In Southeast Michigan, contact: Jessica Arvan, volunteer coordinator of Refugee Services at Lutheran Social Services of Michigan. She’s firstname.lastname@example.org or call (248) 663-0646
In West Michigan, contact Troy Howley, Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, at (616) 356-1934 or email@example.com.
You can drop off donations here
Lutheran Social Services of Michigan
207 E. Fulton St.
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
And there’s usually an Amazon wish list – and more volunteer opportunities – at https://www.lssm.org/.
Obviously, LSSM is not the only organization that helps resettle refugees in Michigan
Here's the link for a few other groups that do also this work, which all have more information about donations and volunteering.