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Nov. 28, 2017

“Refuge Lansing:” Humanizing resettled refugees in the mid-Michigan community

After resettling to Lansing from the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo 10 years ago, Otis Ebulela said he finally feels safe.

“When I don’t see no trouble,” said Ebulela, “I don’t worry about war and people who are gonna come kill somebody for no reason.”

Stories from refugees like Ebulela – who has worked at a Meijer grocery store since coming to mid-Michigan – were the focus of the "Refuge Lansing" exhibit hosted at Michigan State University this fall.

The exhibit was presented through a partnership with the James Madison College; the Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures Department, or WRAC; the CAL Citizen Scholars Program; the English Language Center; and the MSU Library.

Through storytelling, the partnership with the "Refuge Lansing" project is intended to “invite dialogue about perceptions and understanding of the backgrounds, struggles, triumphs and contributions of those who join our communities from elsewhere,” as stated on the WRAC website.

Erika Brown-Binion, executive director of Lansing’s Refugee Development Center, described the exhibit as a way to help get to know refugees as humans who have become a part of the fabric of the Lansing community.

“These are mothers, fathers, teachers, business owners, home owners and students…they are people with hopes and dreams, just like you and I,” Brown-Binion said.

There are about 400-700 refugees resettled in the Lansing community each year, she said.

Brown-Binion describes the refugees with whom she works closely as “people who are really invested in our community.”

“The image of what a refugee is can be distorted because of what we see in the media or in stories,” she said. “‘Refugee’ has sometimes become a bad word."

The storytelling exhibit features displays of intimate conversation with resettled refugees and applies human perspective to the global refugee crisis.

Ruelaine Stokes, a writer for the project and a former professor of English as a Second Language at MSU and Lansing Community College, describes storytelling as “inherently fascinating and natural to human beings.”

“It’s a way we learn about the world,” she said. “It’s easier to learn about refugees by talking to one refugee or by learning about one person’s story than to read a lot of abstract facts about refugees. You see it in a different dimension when you can see yourself in their shoes.”

Murtadha Abdul, also featured on the project, fled from Iraq to Turkey in 2008 and was resettled in America two years later. 

“Any day I wasn’t worrying about being shot at was a good day,” Abdul said, reflecting on his life in Iraq. “You could barely walk down the street without being shot at.” 

“These stories tragically are very common,” Stokes said. “We were trying to create an exhibit that shows more than the life of refugees, to show people the larger picture – to give a more realistic, honest picture of who refugees are.”

Less than 1 percent of the world’s refugees have the opportunity to be resettled. According to Binion, resettled refugees have no input on where they are resettled, leaving them in a foreign, unfamiliar area where they only have governmental assistance for several months.

The MSU and Lansing community offer myriad support systems for resettled refugees to help them successfully integrate into the community.

Find more information about the "Refuge Lansing" project here and how to get involved with the Lansing Refugee Development Center here.

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