It feels good to be home.
For many in Kent County, the word "home" has a local definition and a warm feeling. There's no mistaking its importance in our lives as we live, work, and play in West Michigan. But for those transplanted into our neighborhoods--and, moreover, the United States--for the first time, finding "home" may begin with great uneasiness.
At least 1,000 refugees, without including undocumented minors, began new lives in West Michigan in 2016, according to the Kent County Health Department (KCHD). The largest number of displaced individuals came from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where perennial war and hunger have driven millions from their homes. More than 550 refugees came to Kent County from African countries in 2016, along with nearly 150 people from Burma, almost 100 Cubans, and a comparable amount of Middle Eastern-born individuals.
They come from all over the world, hoping to escape violence, slavery, natural disaster, and inexplicably poor living conditions. They come looking for homes, of course, but along with that, jobs, educational opportunities, and a chance to thrive.
Here in West Michigan, a number of organizations help refugees get acquainted with the area, place them into homes, match them with employers, and otherwise get them started on a stable path toward success. Upon arriving in Kent County, refugees go through the KCHD's health screening process. Joan R. Dyer Zyskowski, the Program Supervisor for the KCHD's Community Wellness Division, says health department nurses are often the “first face” of the healthcare community for refugees.
From there, either Bethany Christian Services or Samaritas New American Services help resettle the individuals and maintain case management responsibilities for three to six months after. BCS also handles employment services for refugees, while the Refugee Education Center can help them enroll in school, and Senior Neighbors provides support for elderly individuals.
Justice For Our Neighbors, led by director Raquel Owens, assists refugees by helping them apply for Green Cards, U.S. citizenship, or renew work authorizations. The organization has been in operation since 2004, guiding transplants through the immigration system...