A community task force that has spent over 40 years resettling refugees is gearing up to help more people this year after President Joe Biden raised the ceiling of how many refugees can enter the U.S. in 2021.
Chris Cavanaugh, director of new American resettlement in West Michigan for the Grand Rapids-based nonprofit Samaritas, spoke to the Business Journal last month about Freedom Flight, a task force and program founded in 1975 to help refugees transition to life in West Michigan.
According to a 1996 interview stored in Hope College’s digital commons, the Freedom Flight program was founded by the Rev. Howard Schipper, a Holland native who was then pastor at Bethany Reformed Church in Grand Rapids. He and his wife, Marybelle, were on a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago on the day of the fall of Saigon that ended the Vietnam War — April 30, 1975 — with a large group of Vietnamese orphans who had survived a plane crash just weeks earlier and were on their way to a Catholic mission in Boston.
Suddenly aware of the consequences caused by the U.S. war against Vietnam, the Schippers felt a calling to help refugees and quickly got to work after arriving back home. Using their connections to a network of area churches and to a friend who worked for the State Department and had ties to the Gerald R. Ford White House, the Schippers were able to create Freedom Flight, a committee that started with one planeload of 100 refugee families that year and grew into a thriving task force that connected refugees from all over the world with medical assistance, English language classes, relationship building, job placement, social services and obtaining citizenship.
Between 1975 and today, the area has settled refugees from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Bosnia, Russia, Cuba, Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among others.
The task force eventually morphed into the Freedom Flight Refugee Center under the umbrella of a nonprofit, the Freedom Flight Corporation Board, which closed in the 1990s, leaving the work of refugee resettlement to other nonprofits such as Bethany Christian Services, Catholic Charities West Michigan and Samaritas. Around 2000, several agencies restarted the Freedom Flight Task Force, which meets quarterly.
Freedom Flight today is led by organizations including Samaritas, Bethany Christian Services, Kent County Health Department, Kent Intermediate School District, The Refugee Education Center and Senior Neighbors. It remains supported by churches, volunteers and service providers, and meetings often are attended by legislators, city commissioners, law enforcement and any other individuals who are interested.
“We like to keep it broad for anyone who wants to give input on resettlement or learn about it,” Cavanaugh said.
He said West Michigan remains a hotbed for refugee resettlement for a variety of reasons, including the large number of churches in the area with a desire to welcome people in need, the lower cost of living as compared to larger cities like New York or Chicago, and the strong public-private partnerships that have been in place here for decades.
“This Freedom Flight story, where the churches are involved, that hasn’t stopped, just like the faith community and individual people that have a welcoming spirit and like to walk alongside the refugees as they’re learning to live life in the United States,” he said. “… It makes it a more welcoming and friendly place for refugees that are coming to a brand-new, start-your-life-over situation.”
Over the years, Cavanaugh said the agencies have developed programs that help refugees get education, jobs, housing, social services and a path to citizenship, while the churches and volunteers’ roles have shifted to more of a relational focus.
“Maybe a volunteer ends up teaching a family member how to drive a car and helps them practice that, or continues their English engagement by doing one-on-one conversation, or … a volunteer and their kids might spend time getting to know (a refugee family’s) kids and playing or doing an outing on the weekends introducing them to things that are local to West Michigan that are enjoyable to do. Those things really enhance the integration process for the families that arrive here,” he said.
Typically, most refugees coming to West Michigan today are joining family members who already live here, Cavanaugh said. After five years in the U.S., they become eligible to apply for citizenship. He said the U.S. government expects refugees to become economically self-sufficient as soon as possible, which means they are eligible and required to find work right away. The Freedom Flight Task Force helps with job readiness, orientation to the U.S. workforce and connections to West Michigan Works! for vocational training. After getting jobs, most refugees obtain permanent housing in the area within a few years, Cavanaugh said, although this is getting harder due to the affordable housing shortage.
There is no formal record of how many refugees Freedom Flight has resettled over the years, but Cavanaugh said it likely numbers in the tens of thousands. In the past five years alone, agencies such as Samaritas and Bethany have resettled around 2,000 to 3,000 refugees combined, he said.
The number of refugees allowed into the U.S. each year is determined by resettlement ceilings set by U.S. presidential administrations. Data from the Migration Policy Institute captured between 1980 and 2021 shows the thresholds have been trending generally downward, with a peak ceiling of 231,700 in 1980 and an all-time low cap of 18,000 set by the Trump administration last year, with only 2,334 refugees actually admitted. When President Joe Biden took office in 2020, he raised the 2021 ceiling to 62,500, with a goal of increasing the ceiling to 125,000 in 2022.
“That’s a huge jump, but it’s not that far off from where we were five years ago,” Cavanaugh said. The 2016 ceiling was set at 85,000 by President Barack Obama’s administration.
Given the four-year drop in the resettlement ceiling under the Trump administration, and thus the decline of federal funding available for resettlement agencies, West Michigan nonprofits have had to do some rebuilding of staffing numbers and expanding their infrastructure to accommodate the higher numbers of refugees the region will be able to settle this year and next, Cavanaugh said.
He noted the U.S. resettlement caps do not come close to reflecting the amount of need worldwide.
“The refugee crisis around the world is at the highest that it’s ever been,” Cavanaugh said. “Even (the aspirational 125,000 cap for 2022) is a drop in the bucket compared to the number of refugees that are displaced around the world, which is in the 20 million range.”
Cavanaugh said Samaritas and its partner organizations are always looking for church groups or individuals who are willing to be matched with a refugee family to walk alongside as they get settled in the U.S.
Those interested in helping can visit samaritas.org/new-americans to learn more or donate to the program.