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Refugee Development Center Provides Bridge of Hope for Refugee Children

Lansing’s Refugee Development Center has been helping refugee families find hope and build new lives for more than 10 years. Today, the organization serves hundreds of refugees and has created specialized programs that support and help children making this difficult transition into American life; so they can start anew.
A little more than 10 years ago, the Christ Lutheran Church started the Refugee Development Center (RDC) to provide support and skills to Lansing’s diverse refugee population.

Since that time, the center has grown considerably, separated into its own organization staffing two full-time and three part-time employees who work alongside 350 community volunteers and 13 interns. Last year, they provided services for more than 900 refugees, including 300 children, which is why children’s programming is such an essential part of the RDC’s work.

Laying a Foundation

“Language acquisition is one of the most important components for refugees to become self-sufficient,” says RDC director Shirin Kambin Timms. Currently the center provides space and support for the children to work on their language skills, as well as receive help with homework and participate in activities that focus on cultural norms and other aspects of American life.

While education and socialization are important, support and security are most essential to the kids. “They know they have to learn English and go to school, and that is so overwhelming and abstract,” says Timms. “That’s why it’s essential that when they walk into the center, they know they will feel welcome and respected. We have a rule that everyone is greeted with a smile - that transcends language and culture,” says Timms.

Providing Support

New arrivals to the center are typically in the process of learning English. While many of the youth may be somewhat fluent and have strong survival English skills, they need the academic English skills to increase their chance of success in school.

“To really be bilingual and academically successful, they have to have that academic English under their belts, so we try to push the kids to continue even once they can survive and socialize, so that they can succeed in school,” says Timms.

Transcending Loss

Refugee children have a lot to deal with when they come here. No refugee leaves their country by choice; but they leave due to turmoil. Upon arrival to the U.S., they are at once immersed into a completely different world and must be focused on gaining new skills and understanding a new culture. At the same time, they are dealing with leaving a lot behind - their old lives, homes, family, friends and culture.

Lansing’s Ele’s Place, the healing center for grieving children is one organization providing support. “That was a natural partnership because so many of the children have experienced death,” says Timms.

The RDC works with Ele’s staff to adapt their program specifically for ESL students. “We work with Ele’s so the curriculum meets the needs of the population they are supporting,” says Timms. She notes that the Ele’s program helps children to develop strategies for coping with extreme and compounded loss.

“Sometimes there has been a death that is connected to a whole string of losses that explains exactly why they are a refugee,” Timms says. In the healing process Timms says they still focus on the death, but they also help the kids to understand the concept of loss on a greater level.

Healing Wounds

Dealing with topics like death and grieving are difficult for any kids, but especially for refugees, where it often isn’t considered an appropriate topic. To ensure the kids feel safe and comfortable, the Ele’s staff comes to the center. “There is always a staff person present who our kids are close to,” says Timms.

An important piece for the program’s success is to ensure that it incorporates cultural aspects of the group they’re working with and also introduces the kids to the processes in American culture.

“One of American’s cultural beliefs is that talking about things makes us feel better, and that’s not universal,” says Timms. “We explain to the kids, and their parents, how sharing the burden with other’s can help take the weight off of their shoulders.”

Supporting Girls

The issue of cultural norms also gets sticky, especially for girls entering our school system. This is where the Girl’s Support Group plays a significant role. The group meets once a week and provides the girls the opportunity to discuss topics such as health and nutrition, self-esteem and emotional issues.

Timms says that cultural and language differences can make school difficult. “Often the girls come from a culture where modesty is held at a premium but to be quiet, reserved and modest, is often perceived as something else here.” For them the message translates that they are somehow not strong or smart. Not fully speaking the language is another area where girls can feel inadequate. “We explain that since English is their second or third language, they are probably pretty bright.”

Building Bridges

The RDC’s biggest role is to help refugees be self-sufficient, and access to education is key, but they also need to meet people, and understand the culture and the community. “We are a bridge,” Timms says. “It’s an important bridge, and they cross it, and that’s exciting to watch.”

Timms notes that the bridge has two sides, and it’s the community that helps support it. “I want Lansing to realize what a rich population we have--what a rich addition--Lansing has lots of components, and the refugee population is one more layer. It’s a population that is incredibly resilient, helpful and hard working, and sometimes not seen.”

Finding Roots

The center focuses on education, but refugees walk through the door with complete lives. Sometimes the center doesn’t have the service they need, but they can help refugees make a connection.
“It is an opportunity for everybody, including us, to continue to learn more about our community. Our hope is that the RDC is where Lansing’s refugees come so they can feel connected, so that they can have roots - they want roots.”

Dawn Gorman is a freelance writer for Capital Gains.

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


MSU students work with kids at the RDC in photos 1-3

The Girl's Support Group meets in photos 4-5

RDC Director Shirin Kambin Timms

Photos © Dave Trumpie
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