Agencies brace for increase in refugees

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) —

“Because of religious persecution, war, genocide at times going on in their home country,” said Samaritas – Director of New American Resettlement in West Michigan Chris Cavanaugh.

“For example, Syrians that are in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan. Grand Rapids is home to a large Burmese refugee community. Myanmar, which is having struggles right now,” Cavanaugh said.

Sunday is World Refugee Day, a time to recognize the struggles faced by refugees and the community efforts to help them.

With the Biden administration’s recent lifting of some Trump-era restrictions on the number of refugees being allowed in the U.S., the number of people seeking a new life in the Grand Rapids area is expected to increase.

Some 250 to 300 refugees are expected to make the Grand Rapids area their new home in the next year, up from 100 in 2020.

Helping those refugees settle here is part of an effort that started in the mid-70s.

In 1975, the South Vietnamese capitol of Saigon fell to the communists to the north. Hundreds of thousands were fleeing the region.

President Gerald Ford recognized the humanitarian crisis.

“So he called on the religious and faith community, particularly the churches in Grand Rapids to each sponsor a family,” said Cavanaugh.

That first flight carrying refugees to the area was dubbed the “Freedom Flight.”

The local efforts went well beyond a friendly welcome to America.

“Churches started collaborating with each other, figuring out where can we help them find jobs, learn English. And they called that collaboration the Freedom Flight Refugee Task Force,” said Cavanaugh.

Forty-six years later, the task force has helped thousands of refugees settle in the area.

Human services agency Samaritas got involved in the early 2000s, helping refugees find a place to live, enrolling their children in school and more.

“We provide a lot of cultural orientation. As you can imagine, learning life in a brand new country is challenge and overwhelming at times,” said Cavanaugh. “And then ultimately helping them find employment so that they can take care of themselves and their families on their own.”

The housing shortage is also impacting the effort.

Find out how you can help and connect with Samaritas at Samaritas.org.

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