West Michigan has a long history of welcoming immigrants and refugees. In 1999 and 2000, I worked for Catholic Human Development Outreach, helping to resettle refugee families from Bosnia, Cuba, Vietnam, Congo, Sudan and Sierra Leone, among other places. Newly arriving families have so much to do and to learn; it is an uncertain and overwhelming time. Securing housing and employment, learning where to grocery shop and how to pay bills—these things are naturally important. But nearly every family I assisted wanted to know first and foremost, when and how to enroll the kids in school. Some families came from refugee camps where schooling was sporadic at best. Helping get the children enrolled in school was consistently one of the first orders of business after a family’s arrival.
With back-to-school time upon us, I find myself thinking a lot about the refugee and immigrant kids who will join our classrooms this year. In 2014/2015, Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) had 440 refugees within its student body, representing more than 20 nations. The district hosted 4,140 English Language Learner (ELL) students with more than 50 languages spoken between them. These students provide a rich cultural context to our schools. At the same time, the transition can be challenging for students—and for school staff trying to help them acclimate. Refugees, by definition, have experienced a well-founded fear of persecution and were forced to flee their own countries. Many have experienced trauma and separation from other family members. All of this is important for us to consider as our community and our schools work together to welcome newcomer students and their families.
In my work at the SAF, I’m often in the schools, learning from students and staff about the unique needs—and attributes—of each building. Recently, I met Jeannette, a third-grade student from Namibia with a wide smile and eagerness to share a hug. I spoke with Jeannette’s teacher at length about some of the struggles her family had faced since their arrival in Grand Rapids. Though there were clearly some difficult challenges, it was evident that Jeannette was in capable, compassion hands at school.
Just as charming and affectionate Jeannette did, the people I met while working in refugee resettlement changed me. Almost two decades later, I still count many of them among my very dearest friends. But their impact goes beyond the personal—they are also integral members of this community. They are talented professionals, engaged parents at school, and warm and inviting neighbors. I know how fortunate we are in Grand Rapids to have a large and vibrant immigrant community among us. In turn, my hope is our schools and our city will continue to welcome and support our students and their families during their transition from newcomer—to neighbor.
Immigrants and refugees are a hot topic these days. While the policy battles seem never ending and the political rhetoric appears only to occupy the farthest regions of the spectrum, middle America marches on, receiving newcomers into our neighborhoods, churches, and our schools. I am grateful to live and work in West Michigan and in the Grand Rapids community where we choose to lead the way in welcoming our new friends.
-Alyssa Morillo Scheidt, Director of Programs and Communications