Samaritas gives fresh starts to refugee children, seeks youth mentors in Greater Lansing

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MIchigan state Capitol

Andrew Birkle

The factor that classifies someone as a refugee instead of an immigrant is a direct threat to their safety or the safety of their loved ones leaves no choice but to leave. Violence, natural disasters and other crises force people of all ages to flee; including some children and teenagers who leave behind their families and communities for a chance at life in a safe environment.

The Michigan-based nonprofit organization Samaritas makes several areas in Michigan, including the Greater Lansing area, the safe haven for kids in such a situation.

“We work only with youth that have been separated from their families so they’ve come over to the U.S. alone … we work only with people that have come into our program under the age of 18” says Mentor/Tutor Coordinator for Samaritas Celine Smith, explaining the focus demographic of the program she helps run.

Smith says the goal is to give the kids the tools necessary to achieve their goals, whether that be through education, employment, job training or a roof over their head until they can get started.

“It (the goal) is supporting them to fulfill their potential, so whatever it is that they are wanting to do. We have kids going to LCC (Lansing Community College), we have kids doing more trade work … you see kids going all over the board in terms of where they end up,” says Smith.

The way kids are acclimated to life in Michigan, says Smith, is through immersion. They are put directly into school and only have access to interpreters for important occasions like medical or therapy appointments and group meetings. This is done to encourage learning and comfortability with the English language.

Smith says a huge challenge the kids have is language. She says, “Language is number one … without knowing English they … feel like they can’t make any connections, they don’t even know what is available for them support-wise and so… delving into the community, getting support, knowing that these people are welcoming them and wanting to help them is one of the biggest problems.”

University of Texas Professor of Sociology Néstor Rodriguez says that these children often “don’t have anyone to guide them.”

Rodriguez says that refugee children also need help from outside organizations because they are essentially “at the mercy of the government” until they complete the necessary documentation processes.

About 70 percent of the children brought into the program are from Central America says Smith. She says this is primarily due to restrictions put in place recently on travel from certain countries.

The percentage of refugee children joining the Samaritas program from different areas. Graphic by Remington Sawade via Infogram. Data courtesy of Celine Smith.

“We have had a lot of kids that have been recommended to come to our program that are from overseas, but … we’ve been having troubles getting them here because of all of the … extra regulation that has been put in,” says Smith.

Smith says the relative ease of crossing the southern border of the U.S. compared to crossing oceans means more refugee children from Central America are making it onto American soil. Even though crossing the border is more likely, the children all face the same extensive series of applications and assessments to be granted refugee status.

“It is really a lengthy process,” says Smith, “they have to go through a whole bunch of medical clearances and interviews … they have to tell a lot of different people along the way about their story in order to get the approval for refugee status… generally the kids that have been separated from their families have been separated for years before they even get to us.”

The reason for the large number of refugees from Central America, according to Rodriguez, is, in reality, a multitude of reasons. He says people start working full time very young, “many work at the age of 14.”

Rodriguez says, depending on the country, a “restricted job market” can leave large numbers of young people unemployed.

Additionally, in some areas youth are targeted by recruitment for gangs and the “fear of violence and threats” forces kids to seek escape.

Anyone who has questions about the program or is interested in volunteering can contact Celine Smith at csmith3@samaritas.org.

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