A person escapes a home they can never return to and finds a home in the American Midwest and, with the help of kindly strangers guiding them, they forged a life.
That is the story of Superman, but it is also one shared by countless non-fictional refugees, without the luxury of super powers.
These refugees do have a powerful advocate in Samaritas, which offers various programs to help many get settled in Michigan. Among the most important is the one for unaccompanied minor refugees. It is expecting 500 new refugees next year and needs the resources to help them find homes and prepare them for bright futures in the U.S..
Many of these young people have spent years in refugee camps before given permission to enter the United States and many often arrive with little more than the clothes they are wearing.
Sulma Vasquez Gamez came from Honduras at age 16 in January 2017. Refugees, like Gamez, differ from other immigrants because they are fleeing natural disasters, war, or persecution in their homeland. Returning to a safe home is not an option.
When she arrived, a social worker from Southwest Key, which provides shelters for immigrant children, tried to find her support, starting with her family. However, her father and uncles … the only family she had … were uninterested in helping. The organization then began looking for other options, eventually landing on Samaritas, which is one of only 28 organizations with a program to help unaccompanied minor refugees.
Once in America, Samaritas helped Gamez with the basics she would need, from preparation with her immigration case to the more finding a home, teaching life skills, and enrolling her in school.
Gamez was on the independent route, which provided a mentor to help guide her, and she took advantage of every program she could.
“I tried everything,” says Gamez. “I took the tutor. I tried the therapy. I enjoyed it all.”
She especially enjoyed the art classes offered and made a painting for last year’s art show.
Now, as she finishes school, she is also able to take care of her son, who was born in America, and spend time with friends on the weekend.
Since she left the program in January 2021, Gamez was inspired to give back and continue the cycle of helping others by volunteering at Samaritas. She is continuing that tradition, since the people she has met through the organization have become like family to her.
While she has helped instruct in the art program, she says what is most important is to help the new arrivals develop a sense of community. She does this through interactions with the kids and planning parties and get-togethers for them.
“If we don’t have a family, this place becomes like a family,” Gamez says, who credits her Samaritas mentor with helping her navigate her new life.
It is fortunate she enrolled with Samaritas when she was 16 because the time and ability to help kids is very different depending upon age. The difference between assistance for 17- and 18-year-olds goes from months to years.
Unaccompanied minors (17 years old and below) can stay in the program until they are 21, which allows for more time to acclimate to their new home. They have access to tutors and therapy in case of mental issues or trauma or mental illness. If enrollment is one day after a person’s 18th birthday, he or she can only stay in the program for 90 days.
Many of those 17 and under are put into foster homes. In many cases, these people become the new family for the children.
Some of the refugees not only keep in touch with their foster families, but visit them on the holidays each year, says Kayla Park, Refugee Youth Services Community Outreach team lead.
“The foster family becomes their family in the United States,” she says.
The kids only stay in foster homes within an hour drive of Samaritas’ home office in Lansing so workers can easily check up on or aid the kids when necessary.
Samaritas tries to help kids finish high school. This year there will be 15 high school graduates from the program.
Many graduates move on to Lansing Community College and often attend its trade schools to learn skills that offer well-paying, in-demand employment opportunities.
Besides the unaccompanied minors, Samaritas also places many adults and families every year. They are provided with more basic elements such as language and job placement classes. Many also receive mentors.
Of course, there is the most basic need of all, a place to live.
Where they wind up, however, takes work. For the optimal transition, it needs to be affordable, since those being placed are not sure what kind of job they will receive.
Close to public transport is also valuable. If they have kids, access to schools is a must.
Samaritas also likes to place arrivals in a neighborhood with a mixture of immigrants and native-born Americans to help with the transition.
Usually, Wayne and Oakland Counties are the best places to meet that criterion.
This year there will be more refugees coming in the U.S. for the first time in years. The number of allowed into the U.S. was increased from 15,000 to 62,500 in May by President Biden. It’s estimated he may increase it to his promised 125,000 in the next fiscal year.
This is good news for Samaritas because it will be able to serve the next wave of refugee families and individuals who need help with resettlement. It also means Samaritas is expanding its services and needs more staff, licensed foster homes for the young ones, and housing. Any person certified by the state can be foster parents to these kids, and Samaritas is a looking for foster homes to place the large group of refugees they expect later this year.
“It is very exciting to see them rebuilding,” says Miheala Mitrofan, director New Americans, Southeast Michigan. “We have been running on bare bones for a while now (with the number of people we serve).”
Between October 2021-September 2022, Samaritas needs to place about 500 new arrivals in 120 homes.
If you want to learn more about Samaritas and how refugees are coping with their new lives, on Tuesday, June 15 from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. there will be a virtual roundtable to raise awareness of refugees. It will discuss the contributions of refugees, the unique they need and how Samaritas tries to meet them, and how the community can help.
Speakers will include:
- Lee Williams, vice president of programs, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS)
- Chris Cavanaugh, director of New American Resettlement, Samaritas
- Kayla Park, team lead, Refugee Youth Services Community Outreach, Samaritas
- Miriam Jordan, national immigration correspondent, The New York Times
- Edwin Rigoberto Hernández-Ventura, Michigan delegate for the refugee congress and former unaccompanied minor from Honduras
There will also be an art show, with paintings by members of the unaccompanied minors program. The paintings, as well as merchandise made from them will be for sale. The proceeds go to the program.
Samaritas has resettled thousands of people from dozens of countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Central and South America. It has been the Michigan affiliate of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service since the 1950s.
If you would like to volunteer at Samaritas please click here.
You can donate at the website here or text RefugeeYouth to (855) 450-0515 to support Samaritas Refugee Youth and New American programs.
No amount is too small to help.