A Place for Everyone
That isn’t simply a line from a smash hit on Broadway. It’s also workplace reality throughout the greater Lansing area. Just ask Judi Harris, who as refugee services director for St. Vincent Catholic Charities of Lansing, helps scores of refugee workers from around the world find employment here.
Around 500 refugees were placed in mid-Michigan jobs by St. Vincent in 2016. “I think they’re a tremendous asset,” Harris said of refugees. “We work with a lot of different employers … who need all kinds of workers.” Such industries include warehousing, accounting, manufacturing, laundry services, guest services, temp work, nursing assistance and other medical roles.
Refugees aren’t looking for handouts; just help to get started and situated. “First and foremost, refugees bring great assets they’re ready to utilize once they’re acclimated to their surroundings,” said Erika Brown-Binion, director of Lansing’s Refugee Development Center, which works with St. Vincent.
“Refugees don’t just come to us without skills,” Brown-Binion said. “Many of them had businesses in their home communities, and degrees and education … They come here with skills and dreams to rebuild that life they had at home.”
“Just welcoming refugees in general has long been one of America’s core values,” Brown-Binion said. “They are fleeing terror, trying to start a new life. They want to be safe. They want to be welcomed and they want to start anew. We forget that sometimes.”
Those seeking both refuge and work in the Capital City region recently received the endorsement of Lansing Mayor, Virg Bernero; who, in a prepared statement earlier this year, called Lansing a “Welcoming City.”
“I stand with the thousands of immigrants and refugees that have resettled in Lansing over the decades. Lansing, like America, was built by immigrants from all over the world, who came to this country seeking their own version of the American Dream. Immigrants like my father, Giulio, who started his own small business and then worked for GM to provide a middle-class lifestyle that put his kids through college,” the Mayor’s statement said.
More than 200 area workplaces host refugee workers via St. Vincent. Many jobs are manufacturing-centered in Lansing and Delta Township. There are also employers as far away as Williamston and Owosso, according to Harris.
“We’ve even had employers tell us they don’t know what they’d do without us,” Harris said.
According to Harris, many of the most recent refugees come from the Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Burma and Afghanistan, among other nations.
“We have people that are coming in who are very dedicated. They want to start a new life. They just want to come in and work hard,” Harris said. “These workers tend to stick around.”
“When they come in (to a new job), that becomes their home and their family; so they become very attached,” Harris said. “The retention rate is so much stronger” than with native workers. “We have very strong employers who like to work with our clients … There’s a place for everybody.”
St. Vincent has a comprehensive employee training program which includes a basic orientation of up to four weeks regarding local laws and is followed by a more detailed, 16-hour training program specific to employment called ‘Working in America.’
“It is everything from how to get a job, interviews, resumes, how to quit a job, everything they need,” Harris said. “(They learn about) sexual harassment, all kinds of things. We have demonstrations and role-plays.”
There is also a special skills training period. If St. Vincent knows a refugee will go to a specific workplace, they will send a representative to the employer and develop a program specific to the role, and then train the refugee to the particulars of the specific job before they start.
“We’ll do a special one for hotels, for example — the proper cleaning products, how to do hospital corners,” Harris said. “So that when they start a job, they’re ready when they get there. Employers are really happy about that.”
Challenges include learning the English language. “It just takes a little time” Harris said. “And, working helps them learn more quickly through language exposure.”
Brown-Binion said her agency offers ongoing training regarding resumes, filling out job applications, using computers and other career skills; after-school programs and summer camp for refugee workers’ kids; as well as continuing popular English education tools.
“We provide English classes six days a week right now. They’re all full. People are wanting to learn English,” said Brown-Binion. “Some of these people are coming every day of the week that classes are available.”
Another challenge is transportation, for refugees who may need time to ease into America’s unique car culture. Fortunately, most employers are within reach via public transportation services and carpooling is provided for some further-away work places.
It isn’t just a refugee who gets something out of the opportunity to work here. So do native workers who otherwise may never meet a refugee face to face.
“That’s how people meet refugees. We have a mantra: anybody who doesn’t love a refugee hasn’t met a refugee. We want every workplace to have someone,” Harris said. “We try to put people in as many places as possible so that everyone understands what we’re doing.”
In Bernero’s statement he claimed, “Our city is a rich tapestry of multicultural populations, enriching our community with their customs, their ideas and their commitment to a better Lansing for everyone.”
Brown-Binion said diversity adds to the experiences of everyone living here. “Learning a different culture, different experiences, being a neighbor… refugees bring so much more to our communities to make them better places.”
Online, go to stvcc.org/services/refugee-services to learn more about refugee programs at St. Vincent. More information on the Refugee Development Center can be found at refugeedevelopmentcenter.org.
Omar Sofradzija is an adjunct journalism instructor at Michigan State University. Prior to that, he was a columnist and reporter at the Las Vegas (Nev.) Review-Journal, where he covered the development and launch of that city’s Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) bus rapid transit system and the Las Vegas Monorail.