Close your eyes and imagine you’re a refugee. Your home — what you’ve known as a safe, familiar place — is no longer safe anymore. You will face violence and persecution if you don’t leave soon. When you finally make that tough decision to uproot your life, you arrive in an unknown place, burdened with the inevitability of starting over. You feel anxious, scared and alone — unwelcome, even — with the negative narrative about refugees constantly replaying in your mind.
Refuge Lansing is changing the narrative by taking a stand against the culture of fear that has unfortunately become all too familiar in society. The local storytelling project is giving a voice to refugees who have been resettled in mid-Michigan while highlighting the positive impact these diverse groups have on Michigan’s economic, social and cultural development. Refuge Lansing brings 12 inspiring stories of resettlement to life through an exhibit, book and website.
St. Vincent Catholic Charities, Samaritas Refugee Youth Services, The Global Institute of Lansing and the Refugee Development Center are four agencies supporting local refugee efforts. Along with these agencies, several others helped contribute to Refuge Lansing, including those who shared their stories and over two dozen creative writers, photographers and editors. The project’s primary goal is “to celebrate everything refugees add to our community, and to create a sense of empathy, hope, understanding and welcome.”
“If you do not love refugees, you have not met one,” Erica Brown Binion, the director of Lansing’s Refugee Development Center, said. “We wanted to help the rest of the community, the rest of the world, see that refugees are people with dreams and hopes just like everyone else. They are committed and deeply rooted in their community.”
Binion facilitated the connections between refugees willing to tell their stories, and the writers and photographers eager to bring the stories to fruition. One of the writers who contributed to Refuge Lansing was Melissa Kaplan. She interviewed Faaza Dawd, Mohammed Kathem and their four children — a family who sought refuge from the war in Iraq. Traveling from Baghdad to Chicago, they were hopeful and eager to build a new life for themselves. In the story, Kaplan highlighted the apprehension Faaza, Mohammed and their children faced; however, since resettling in Lansing, they have become active members of the community, finding contentment and belonging.
“It’s important to tell these stories because these are our neighbors, part of our community,” Kaplan said. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding and fear about refugees that familiarity and friendship can help alleviate.”
Kaplan’s story is one of 12 featured in the Refuge Lansing project. Others feature a young artist with big dreams, a business owner with an unconditional love for his family and a network engineer who recognizes the value of education.
According to the Refugee Development Center, there are roughly 700 refugees resettled in Lansing each year. Projects such as Refuge Lansing are an incredible way to encourage support of resettlement efforts. Refugees sharing their unique and diverse stories not only inspire others but evoke a feeling of pride and acceptance; Binion recalls one of these special moments.
“When one family completed the project, they called to reflect, saying, ‘I am so proud to tell my story. I am so proud to belong to this community, to belong somewhere again. Lansing is my home,’” Binion said.
The next Refuge Lansing events take place Dec. 4-8 at Lansing Community College’s Centre for Engaged Inclusion and Feb. 1-22 at the East Lansing Public Library. For more information on the traveling exhibit and how you can help, visit refugelansing.us.