Hundreds of refugees arrive to the area, students are taking notice
At the corner of Bensch Street and Gray Street in Lansing sits a small house with a gray roof and beige walls.
Other than a few chairs, a couch in the living room and a sink on the kitchen floor, the inside is bare. No television, no computer, not even a bed to sleep on.
This is Khalika Kaba’s first house.
Kaba, a 24-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, does not sleep in his house. Other than the bathroom and kitchen, he hardly uses it at all.
Behind the house sits a garage. Inside the garage, sits a Ford Explorer surrounded by clothes, shoes, a chair and a fax machine. This is where Kaba has spent most of his nights during the past month.
But when Kaba talks about the house, he can’t help but smile.
“I own this,” Kaba said. “I just feel like this is mine — I can do whatever I want. … I feel very good.”
Kaba is one of more than 15,000 refugees in the Lansing area — a population that many MSU students never come in contact with during their time in college. This is something one student group is attempting to remedy.
The International Volunteer Action Corps, or IVAC, at MSU has been working with Kaba to fix up his home: cleaning it up, disinfecting the walls, putting up new paint and making it livable.
IVAC President and international relations junior Caroline Chen said most students don’t know about the Lansing refugee community and how many opportunities there are to help people, such as Kaba.
“They’re here to start up a new life, so we should be here to help them get acclimated, provide comfort and friendship — relationships that they seek but might not necessarily have.”
A rocky road
Kaba never met his real family. As a child in Uganda, he was taken in by a Guinean man and raised in the Congo.
Kaba’s adopted father raised him as his own, and Kaba came to know the man’s four children as brothers and sisters.
In 2004, conflict arose in the Congo, causing Kaba and his family to flee back to Uganda. But before they could escape, Kaba’s father was killed.
Kaba said his father was the most important person in his life, and he was devastated by the loss. But there was little time to mourn his loss.
“We arrived in Uganda in 2005 in August, and in October I went (away) to work for six months,” Kaba said. “When I came back around (March 2006), I didn’t find (my family) at home. They were swift, they moved and they didn’t tell me where they went.”
For the next two years, Kaba remained in a refugee camp until he was selected for resettlement by U.N. officials in 2008 and was flown to Lansing.
Community relations and marketing director for St. Vincent Catholic Charities Julie Picot said less than five percent of refugees are resettled and described the process as winning “the lottery of life.”
But many refugees, such as Kaba, are resettled halfway around the world in a strange place with no family or friends to support them.
Suddenly, these young people have to learn how to live on their own, provide for themselves and to interact with people who speak another language, Picot said. Tasks that might seem simple, such as riding the bus or shopping at Meijer, can be incredibly difficult to learn, she said.
But harder still is healing the mental and emotional wounds that have been inflicted upon these refugees before their arrival, she said.
“They’ve gone sometimes 24 hours without food. They’re exhausted, hungry and scared,” Picot said. “They’ve seen a lot of horror brought on by human hands, so it’s our job to show them the kindness of humanity.”
Once the refugees have an understanding of language, are familiar with the area and know how to provide for themselves, agencies help them find employment, housing and education. The goal is to have all of this completed in six months, Picot said.
But for refugees such as Kaba, beyond those essentials lies a desire for something more, something many refugees in his situation struggle to find — companionship.
Finding a friend
With between 400-700 refugees coming to Lansing each year, there are many services and agencies that cater to their needs, but the focus for most of those groups is centered on children and families, MSU alumnus Ken Chester said.
But there are few resources for college-age refugees, Chester said.
Because of this shortcoming, Chester founded Refugee/Immigrant Young-Adult Neighbor, or RYAN, in 2008 based on the work he did as a student at MSU and a member of IVAC.
After working with a young refugee during an IVAC project in 2007, Chester realized this segment of the refugee population was being isolated from the rest of the community.
“The thing that really touched me was when he said, ‘You’re my only friend in the community,’” Chester said.
After this encounter, Chester made it his goal to reach out to the young refugees in the area. He sent out letters to refugees he worked with in the past, offering himself as a mentor.
The response he received was resounding — overwhelming at times when trying to balance his studies — but he recognized this was a necessary element missing in so many individuals’ lives and he often was the only person to fill that void.
Upon graduating from MSU, Chester founded RYAN, a nonprofit organization focused on integrating young refugees and immigrants who are too old to go to grade school or high school.
During Kaba’s first year in Lansing, he had few contacts. His closest acquaintance was an English tutor he was set up with through a local agency, but she often was too busy for Kaba to have regular contact with her.
That changed in 2009 when Kaba met Chester.
Since then, Kaba has had someone to call, someone to lend a helping hand and someone to link him to the community.
“If I need him for anything, if he’s not busy, he shows up anytime,” Kaba said. “To me, Ken is like a brother. Ken is the most number one person I’m close to here in the U.S.”
Rebuilding and reuniting
Since meeting Chester, a lot has happened in Kaba’s life. He has a job at the Lexington Lansing Hotel, 925 S. Creyts Road, in Lansing, working nine-hour shifts, four days a week and taking 16 credit hours at Lansing Community College.
During the past three years, Kaba also has changed locations several times, moving from apartment to apartment and living with friends. But in August, once he found a house to call his own, Kaba wanted it to be perfect — for himself and for his family.
As soon as Kaba arrived in the U.S., he continued his search for his stepmother and siblings, calling the U.N., trying to track them down. After talking to U.N. officials, the organization was able to find his family, who had been looking for Kaba too.
“Even though I’m here alone, since I know they’re there and I know they’re alive, I don’t feel worried anymore,” Kaba said.
Kaba is not sure exactly when his family will arrive to the U.S., but he believes they will be reunited before the end of the year.
But with time running short before their arrival, Kaba was faced with a problem — repairing his new home with limited time and limited resources.
After hearing about Kaba’s problem, Chester reached out to Carlos Fuentes, his former adviser from his time spent with IVAC.
After getting the call, Fuentes and this year’s members of IVAC, including Chen, decided to lend a helping hand.
The group cleared debris from the lawn, cleaned out trash, sterilized several rooms and made a few structural improvements.
Chen said the group relishes the opportunity to help Kaba and hear his story, but she regrets not getting involved sooner.
“It’s exciting that we’re here at this really important time in his life, but I feel like we might have been able to make more of a difference if we were there from the beginning,” she said.
Kaba expressed his gratitude to the volunteers for their help by making them a traditional East African meal, consisting mostly of chicken and rice.
Kaba said without the help of Chester and IVAC, he still would have made no progress on his house.
But Chester said aside from the physical progress of Kaba’s home, a more meaningful accomplishment he took from the group’s work was the emotional bond created between Kaba and the MSU students.
“Kaba knows he’s not alone,” Chester said. “He’s got a lot of friends over at the university and within his own community that he might not have known about.”
Lansing has been a refugee resettlement location since the 1970s, and in recent years, this has acted as an economic stimulant for the city, which has seen population losses during the past several decades, Picot said.
There are many refugee residents forming their own communities and even opening their own businesses to facilitate their needs, Picot said.
“I think in Lansing we are very lucky because we are so welcoming to refugees,” she said. “I think it helps that we have MSU so close by with such a diverse population there as well.”
Although Kaba doesn’t have much free time, he said he has many things to do for fun, such as visiting the Capitol and Potter Park Zoo — he even went to his first baseball game last month.
For younger refugees, sports are a way to get to acclimated to life in the U.S., doctoral student Missy Wright said.
Wright is pursuing her doctoral degree in kinesiology at MSU and runs the Refugee Sports Club in Lansing.
This program is operated through the Refugee Development Center. During these sessions, MSU student mentors teach young refugees about respecting their bodies as well as respecting one another, Wright said.
“It’s not just sports. We do play basketball or soccer or volleyball, but before each session starts, we talk to them about taking responsibility and accountability for their actions,” Wright said. “It’s great working with kids who are so willing to learn.”
Kinesiology senior Liz Brookhouse is volunteering as a youth mentor for the second year, and she said she is amazed at how powerful the experience has been for her.
“It’s challenging, but it’s definitely rewarding,” Brookhouse said. “It’s not just me teaching them — they also show me a lot about different cultures and about myself.”
Taking the next step
IVAC will go to Kaba’s house again Saturday morning, and he hopes this next round of renovations will be enough to get him into his house full time.
For Kaba, this is just the next step in an already lengthy journey, but his payoff is coming soon — being reunited with his family once again.
Kaba said once his family arrives, he will be more than ready to provide for them.
“Now I feel like I am responsible for them, like my father was for us,” he said. “I have to make sure, when they get here, we are together and they have a good life. And when they get here, they’ll have a better life than they do now.”