Welcoming Refugees in Southeastern Michigan: Compassionate Self-Interest

Article written by Mary Rouleau, Learning to Give's 2018 Wayne County Classroom Community Coordinator.

At a critical time in life of this country, Abraham Lincoln exhorted Americans to be touched by "the better angels of our nature."  It is hard to argue that there ever is a time—especially now—when compassion should not be practiced.  But it should not be overlooked that there are times when compassion may also benefit those who extend it. 

Consider this story about a Southeastern Michigan man and his journey from war-torn Iraq to business ownership in this new country he calls home.  

After Yasir Ibrahim arrived in Michigan in 2008 as an Iraq refugee fleeing the war. He worked at a Dollar Store to make ends meet and less than 10 hard-working years later, he owns a specialty burger restaurant in Sterling Heights, Michigan with 15 employees.   

Ibrahim is just one of many stories among the data in a study released in the fall of 2017 that shows approximately 21,000 refugees have resettled in southeastern Michigan, contributing more than $230 million to the local economy in 2016 alone  

According to the study, resettling the refugees created between 1,800 and 2,300 jobs and also provided an important boost to the region, and state, population.   

Michigan is the only state in the country to have fewer residents today than in the year 2000. Over the last decade, Michigan has been the 4th largest refugee destination state in the nation, and Southeast Michigan is home to nearly half of those refugees.  

Politics and Refugees  

This study and the refugee contributions it describes are especially timely given the current federal crackdown on refugee admissions. The Trump administration announced that it would accept only 45,000 refugees in 2018, the lowest number in decades. In addition, it announced it was ending Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for approximately 200,000 El Salvadorans who have lived in the U.S. since 2001 following two devastating earthquakes in El Salvador.    

While there has been outcry by many groups against the Trump policies, others welcome the changes.  For example, The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) warns about the inability to properly screen refugees who may present “terrorist threats”. 

How can you help? 

Talking to students—and your family, friends and neighbors—about these issues and immigration in general can be difficult as it involves both emotional content and complex factsIf you teach in a school with students from immigrant or refugee families, you can blend personal stories into the discussion as well. Discussions may build student empathy, and understanding that generosity can be in one's self-interest.  

Teachers around the country are coaching their students to using their talents and skills to make a difference. With Learning to Give in the classroom, the next generation will learn the traits of service and civic engagement. 

Learning to Give has many resources to help inform, structure, and guide a discussion about refugees and immigrants, as well as suggestions for learning through service, including: 

Consider reaching out to local nonprofits for information and as potential partners in service. In Southeast Michigan, nonprofits that provide services and support to refugees include:  

Zaman International: Dedicated to helping women, children, and refugees meet basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter, and to move forward through vocational programs and English classes.  

Samaritas: Provides care and resettlement assistance for refugees.   

Syrian American Rescue Network: Recently-established and focused on Syrian refugees.