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Local nonprofits, communities work to welcome Syrian refugees

As Syrian refugees arrive in the Grand Rapids area, local Syrian-Americans, along with Bethany Christian Services and other local nonprofits, are helping them build new lives, find work and connect with culture.

/Sam Attal

/Sam Attal

/Sam Attal

Grand Rapids is welcoming new families of Syrian refugees this year after war that has driven millions from their homes, seeking refuge around the world.

Sam Attal, a pathologist living in Ada, Mich., has been helping these refugees adjust to life in West Michigan. A Syrian himself, Attal came to the United States 25 years ago to complete his medical training.

Attal currently has family in Syria, and he says his own experience is a constant challenge, as it is for the refugees.

“This whole thing for us, it’s like you wake up every morning thinking it’s a nightmare you’re having, or is this true?” he says.

The Syrian community in Grand Rapids is small, Attal says, but has provided much-needed cultural support for the newcomers.

“We have very little resources and manpower,” he says. “So what we do is help the refugee agencies. We try to supplement their services with our inputs.”

Such assistance includes moral and social support, inviting people into their homes, taking them out to dinner and collaborating with nonprofits to provide material needs. Many of their needs, however, are immaterial.

“You have to remember that these people came from a war zone, traumatized,” Attal says. “Most of them, if not all, lost family members, sometimes in front of their eyes.”

The most initial concern is restoring their psyche, their pride and their self-worth, he says.

“They need a lot of social and psychological support,” he says. “They need people to visit them, to show them care and love and compassion, and they need to work. They really want to work.”

Attal encourages people to help find Syrians jobs for the sake of their well-being.

“Once you work you get immersed in the society, you feel productive again, you feel that you are contributing again and supporting yourself and your family,” he says. “And that can take away from the previous feeling of losing everything.”

The principal organization settling these families is the Grand Rapids-based nonprofit Bethany Christian Services, helping meet refugee needs including assistance with housing, transportation, application for Social Security and other benefits, connection with doctors and health screening, employment, school registration for children and connection with local community.

So far, Bethany Christian Services has helped four families, for a total of 27 people. All of the refugees, says Kristine Van Noord, program manager for refugee adult and family programs, still have family in Syria and in neighboring countries, and are “extremely desperate to have them come here.”

“I have had many mothers grab my hand and beg me to help them get here,” she says. “Their families are still in danger and so they worry for them every day.”

The Syrian community in the Grand Rapids area and local institutions have been very receptive toward the refugees, Van Noord says.

“Churches have been amazing and incredibly supportive for these families, and the Muslim community has really embraced the clients we have,” she says.

This support is valuable, Van Noord says, considering these refugees will be settled in West Michigan for the long haul.

“They would love to return home,” she says. “Unfortunately, it’s just not an option and it’s not an option anytime soon.”

Syria is currently divided along ever-changing territorial borders by various fighting groups, including the Islamic State group, al Qaeda, rebel forces backed by the U.S. government and the Syrian government of president Bashar al-Assad, now supported by Russian airstrikes.

As the United Nations deliberates on how to control this fractured violence, the long-term situation in Syria is likely continued war and displacement.

Van Noord says that with proper support, Syrians refugees do have long-term opportunities, especially in the Grand Rapids area.

“They really want to build a life here,” she says. “I see them in the future being homeowners and business owners and people very involved and a part of our community.”

Sam Attal says Muslims and Arabs currently face prejudice in American society, but that West Michigan has been largely welcoming.

“There are instances in which you meet someone who is bigoted, but I wouldn’t call it by any means a majority or even a large minority,” he says.

These sentiments exist even on the national political stage in comments from Republican primary candidates.

“What the GOP is trying to do is cater to the basic instincts of people, to get them excited and get them motivated to do something,” Attal says. “And sometimes the easiest way to do it is by showing differences rather than by showing commonalities. I think you can appeal to better instincts.”

The reaction to bigotry has been overwhelmingly positive, Attal says.

“It’s politics rather than policy,” he says. “I really doubt anybody who gets elected will implement measures that are anti-immigrant.”

He says the public perception of Muslims is mostly an issue of education, and not of bad intentions. People need to understand that these new refugees are here as a necessity, he says, and not by economic choice.

“They didn’t leave because they were poor,” Attal says. “Their situation was not one of poverty. It was one of oppression and one of lack of dignity.”

Bethany Christian Services and other institutions are calling on the United States government to increase its commitment to accepting more Syrian refugees.

“The U.S. has always been a leader in refugee settlement, so we would call for them to step up,” Kristine Van Noord says. She encourages people to advocate for increasing the U.S. commitment by contacting their local legislators.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said recently that the state can take on the role of supporting more refugees in the future, as the Obama administration calls for an increased U.S. commitment to accepting Syrian refugees, which is current at 10,000 through Sept. 2016.

There are several ways community members can get involved to help refugees in West Michigan.

Bethany Christian Services is actively seeking volunteers in many different capacities, including education, transportation and donations of lightly used furniture and other items. They also encourage financial donations to help cover medical and mental health needs, which Van Noord says are common issues facing refugees.

Anyone interested in helping out can contact Bethany Christian Services’ refugee program or the West Michigan Refugee Education and Cultural Center for more information.

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