Reaching out to refugees

Advocate: refugee community has role in rebuilding state's economy

By Frank Weir

Legal News

Are refugees and immigrants a threat to the "American Way of Life" or a unique asset?

With a daily news barrage, it can be easy to forget that there are real people, real families behind all the talk, much of it venomous, from self-styled "expert" pundits.

But Shirin Kambin Timms, a Jackson Community College associate professor of political science, knows the faces and families.

As to expert knowledge? She is the executive director of the Lansing-based Refugee Development Center (RDC), volunteering there for years before assuming her current position in 2007.

Timms spoke at a recent dinner meeting of the Harriet A. Myer Business and Professional Women in Jackson explaining how she began her work and that of the Center.

Originally started by Christ Lutheran Church in 2002, the RDC now is an independent non-profit providing educational and social support for several hundred refugees that live in the greater Lansing area.

It is estimated that around 3,200 refugees moved to Michigan in 2010.

Timms' refugee work began with a "sewing circle."

"Ten years ago I was looking for volunteer work as an interpreter and found a sewing circle that involved refugee women in Lansing," Timms said. "The idea of it was to provide much-needed job training for women coming into our country who needed to find work quickly.

"It is something that women do across the world: sit together and talk. And in Lansing there are a number of sewing positions available so it was hoped the circle would help them develop their sewing skills."

Timms added that she eventually became executive director of the RDC and is still involved with the circle. There is no common language so interpreters help with communication in the circle and a social worker also helps lead in starting the sharing among the women.

"The circle has been an amazing experience. There are good times and bad, challenges and triumphs."

Lansing is one of three "free case cities" in Michigan Timms added, meaning that refugees may settle there without a sponsoring family.

"Refugees must meet a specific legal definition, specifically, they are people who are no longer in their home countries and cannot return for fear of persecution."

Their outcast status may be due to race, religion, gender, politics, among others, she noted. "Basically, its a situation where people are on a run for their lives because of the package they come in. Some government has decided they are no longer worthy to remain in their country."

Although their path to the U.S. can be varied, they are under intense pressure after arrival. They are expected to be self-sufficient within three months of arrival and also to pay back plane tickets that can amount to thousands of dollars, Timms said.

"Expectations are unbelievable. Can you imagine telling college graduates that arrive in a new country not knowing the language that they must be able to be self supporting and to be fully mobile in three months?"

"There is a long waiting list for our English classes. We can't keep up with demand. And most Americans don't realize how powerful language is. Imagine going through your day without being able to communicate with language from shopping to getting help from a doctor. You are constantly dependent on someone else and no one wants that."

Despite those barriers, Timms believes that foreign-born Michigan residents can play a large role in rebuilding the state's economy.

"Foreign born individuals often have a very strong and vibrant entrepreneurial spirit in my experience. They can play an important role in a strategy to reinvigorate our economy especially when you realize Michigan ranks third in the nation in high technology starts ups.

She notes that the Global Detroit Initiative has reported:

"Michigan immigrants make up less than 6 percent of the population yet are responsible for more than 32 percent of all high-tech startups, helping push Michigan to No. 3 among the states in producing new high-tech business opportunities.

"In 2006, 22 percent of the international patent applications from Michigan listed a foreign-born resident as one of their key inventors. Evidence also shows that immigrants are job creators and entrepreneurs.

"Our state's education system attracts many foreign students, contributing more than $600 million a year to our economy. Michigan immigrants are also more likely to possess a four-year college degree than are native-born residents, helping us move toward a knowledge-based economy. In fact, 44 percent of engineering master's degrees and 62 percent of engineering doctorates in the state are awarded to foreign-born students."

And of course, since they are in residence, they pay payroll taxes, sales taxes or property taxes thus contributing to the state's revenue.

Timms adds that, "When you look at taxes, revenue, and demographics, you can easily see how refugees and immigrants can play an important economic role in our recovery strategy," she said.

And beyond the economic, Timms sees acceptance as an important duty for all Americans.

"Refugees are part of our country and part of an economic strategy and we need to do something different in terms of our attitude to get to where we want to be. It takes a community to welcome refugees; not any one agency or non-profit can accomplish it. It takes an entire city, it takes all of us.

"They want this to be their last stop, they want to make a life here and often they live in high risk neighborhoods. They plant flowers. They want to get to know their neighbors. They are the new Americans and we are good to encourage them."

Published: Thu, Jun 30, 2011