Michigan’s Afghan refugee resettlement is a ‘model for the rest of the country’

White House coordinator praises state’s support for refugees during Lansing visit

By: - November 5, 2021 10:04 am

Displaced Afghans reach out for aid from a local Muslim organization at a makeshift IDP camp on August 10, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. | Paula Bronstein /Getty Images

As refugee resettlement agencies are working to place tens of thousands of Afghans across the country, they’re also grappling with a refugee system that has been severely strained by cuts under the former Trump administration, former Delaware Gov. and White House Coordinator for Operation Allies Welcome Jack Markell said Thursday in Lansing.

“There are nine big resettlement agencies; they have 200 or so affiliates across the country — five years ago they had 300,” Markell, who President Joe Biden appointed to lead the White House’s efforts to resettle Afghan refugees, told the Advance following a press conference at the Lansing School District’s Welcome Center. 

“The resettlement agencies were really decimated over the last five years,” Markell continued. “They are simultaneously having to rebuild their capacity and settle what really is a record number of people in a short period of time.”

Markell met with state and local leaders, as well as an Afghan family who has been living in Lansing for about a month, in an effort to learn about Michigan’s refugee resettlement practices and replicate those across the country. 

Former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, the White House Coordinator for Operation Allies Welcome. | Anna Gustafson

Michigan has committed to resettling about 1,600 Afghan refugees fleeing violence and political persecution in their home country. Their arrival follows the United States ending its longest war and pulling its last military troops from Afghanistan at the end of August.

About 275 individuals from Afghanistan have moved to Michigan since September, including 111 in Lansing — which has so far welcomed the greatest number of Afghan refugees in Michigan, Markell said. Nationwide, the country has resettled about 17,000 Afghan refugees, and there are currently about 50,000 people from Afghanistan living on eight U.S. military bases who are waiting to be resettled, according to Markell.

“I am visiting a number of communities across the country where things are going particularly well so we can learn from those communities; it’s very fitting that we visit Lansing and the state of Michigan because I think you all are doing so much we can share across the country,” Markell said during Thursday’s press conference. “I think you in Lansing, you in Michigan, should be really proud of the work you’re doing. You’re truly a model for the rest of the country.”

Poppy Hernandez, executive director of the Office of Global Michigan, noted Michigan’s long history of welcoming refugees and said state officials and resettlement organizations have quickly worked to provide support and resources for Afghans moving here. The Office of Global Michigan is helping to oversee efforts to resettle refugees in the state and, along with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, recently launched a new online resource, www.Michigan.gov/AfghanArrivals, to connect Michiganders who want to support incoming refugees.

“In a matter of just a few short months, we’re providing permanent housing, employment opportunities [for Afghan refugees] … we’re lining up volunteers who stand ready to welcome our new friends,” Hernandez said.

As Markell highlighted, Hernandez said Michigan’s resettlement agencies are working to quickly resettle individuals and families from Afghanistan in the wake of cuts from the former Trump administration. In 2020, the GOP administration slashed the number of refugees allowed into the United States to a historically low number — 15,000 — about 55,000 fewer people than the last cap set by former President Barack Obama. That cut resulted in fewer federal dollars going to resettlement agencies. 

In Michigan, Hernandez said resettlement agencies have struggled with fewer federal dollars but worked hard to keep their “core staff.” 

“Resettlement agencies here believed what was happening under the previous administration was temporary, so they did everything they could to protect their highly skilled staff,” Hernandez said in an interview following Thursday’s press conference. “So those people are still there, the people with the historical knowledge and the experience.

“But they are facing the challenge of staffing up to respond to this bigger initiative [of resettling Afghan refugees], and they’re in the same boat many employers are in here in Michigan, which is around finding talent,” Hernandez said. “So they’re working very creatively. They’re working with temp agencies; they’re working with other nonprofits. They’re doing everything they can.”

State initiatives around welcoming Afghan refugees that have worked particularly well, according to Markell, include the state Refugee Coordinator’s office directly engaging with Michigan’s five resettlement agencies, state officials and agencies quickly launching efforts to ensure housing, food and other supports are immediately available for arriving individuals and families, and the creation of the previously mentioned statewide and donation website.

“Everybody is stepping up,” Lansing Mayor Andy Schor said at the press conference. “ … This is a traumatic time and a tough time for these folks coming over. We want to welcome them and make sure they have housing and everything they need. We are excited to welcome these wonderful folks with open arms.”

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor | Anna Gustafson

Lansing School District Superintendent Benjamin Shuldiner said city schools are also working to support children and families who are not only learning a new language and culture but are dealing with trauma.

“I’m honored I can be the superintendent of a district that’s so open, so warm and so welcoming to folks from around the world,” Shuldiner said.

Hernandez and Judi Harris, the director of refugee services at St. Vincent Cathlic Charities in Lansing, emphasized that more volunteers are needed to support individuals acclimating to new lives in Michigan.

“We can match people with a family to help them navigate the community, to practice English and work with kids,” Harris said. 

Hernandez said the refugees who are currently in Michigan “are very grateful to have a refuge, literally.” 

“They’re very grateful to our state and country,” Hernandez continued. “It’s important to know there’s a small window of time here where the state, through the federal government, will be investing and getting them resettled, but they are going to very quickly become part of our Michigan communities. They are going to become part of our economy and fill the talent gap we have in our state.”


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is a former assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats included economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country.