Refugees offer unique economic assets, expert says

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?"

And the former experiences that many refugees have gone through are daunting, Timms added.

"This is just incredible work and we hear survival stories all the time. We have one Burundian boy at the center who is being helped by a volunteer from MSU. This boy was talking about his former life in a refugee camp overseas and he said he fought for food, slept, and watched people die.

"This was a normal day for this young boy."

Timms notes that often refugees are scapegoated in any society particularly when the society is faced with economic or other challenges such as the current situation here in the U.S.

But she is convinced refugees bring incredible assets and it is essential their strengths be recognized.

"I have never seen such a drive and desire for education among our refugee population at the center. There is a myth that people new to the country don't want to learn English but that is not true."

She added that the older an individual is, the harder it is to become fluent in a foreign language.

"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. Between 1996 and 2007, Michigan immigrants represented 15.8 percent of new-business owners, making them three times more likely than non-immigrants to start a business, creating opportunity and jobs for Michigan."

The GDI continues that an educated workforce is essential to economic growth.

"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."

Timms closed with a moving story of a Kurdish woman with several children who had been forced to relocate some 13 times, escaping first to Jordan.

Before coming to the U.S., she was told by a European country that only she and her two youngest children could emigrate.

"She looked him in the eye and said you resettle all of us or none of us and walked out," Timms said. "That took a lot of strength. Two years later she had the opportunity to come to the U.S. with all her children and they were all scheduled to land her on Sept. 12, 2001.

"After 911, our refugee settlement program was revamped. She waited another three years until finally she and all her children came to Lansing. All the children have gone to school, community college and beyond."

Timms said that at one time, members of the family worked incredible hours at Fire Mountain Restaurant on the far west side of Lansing even though the family home is near Sparrow Hospital.

"Every day they would take a bus but when their shifts ended late at night, they walked the entire distance back home since the buses were not running at that hour.

"I can give you a million stories about the work ethic of refugees and immigrants. This woman is one of the most heart-warming people you will meet. She doesn't look strong but she will tell you women can be a force to be reckoned with when they decide to be," Timms said.

See for more information about the RDC.

Published: Thu, Jun 23, 2011