Refuge Lansing is a storytelling project celebrating decades of refugee resettlement in mid-Michigan. These are stories about families who have fled violence and persecution in their home countries and are now an integral part of the Lansing region - buying homes, starting businesses, sending their children to local schools, and adding to the diverse quilt that makes us such a unique, welcoming community.
Nov. 4, 2008, marked the brink of stunning change for Faaza Dawd and Mohammed Kathem and the country that would now be their new home. “Everyone was excited about Obama’s election,” remembered Faaza, 36. Landing in Chicago amidst city-wide celebration, the couple and their children were fleeing the ongoing war in Iraq.
Like the tens of thousands from all over the world who seek refuge every year in the U.S., Faaza and her family left home not knowing what to expect, yet eager to build a new life. Nearly nine years later, they have done just that.
However, her family’s journey hasn’t been a straight road to stability, but one filled with challenges, and choices as well as rewards.
Shortly after arriving in Lansing, Mohammed discovered his graphic design degree wasn’t recognized in the U.S., so he initially worked at Peckham. Then, when he learned of a medical transportation opening in Phoenix, the family made the move to Arizona.
Eager to be an independent businessman, he purchased his own vehicles instead of working for someone else. But Arizona’s higher taxes took a toll and they returned to Lansing nine months later. Undeterred, Mohammed bought United Auto Sales, a used car business that he runs on Lansing’s south side.
“The weather was better (in Arizona),” said Hussain, 18, the oldest son. Laughing, his younger sister, Rokaia, 12, said: “But the people here are nicer, they look you in the eye.” As families do, they’ve made adjustments — to find the right neighborhood to live in, to have their children excel at school and sports, to have time for picnics and summer trips, to make friends. Most importantly, they want to make a difference.
“(Telling our story) should help refugees,” said Faaza. Refugees “are often afraid, (so) we share how things are in the present.”
Gathered in their Lansing townhome’s cozy living room, the older children chatted about sports and school. Mohammed, 49, turned down the TV, but, along with the boys, still gave occasional glances to the professional wrestling show airing.
Faaza served sweetened coffee in delicate china cups. Arshad, 16, brought out the family pet, Simpson, a gray-and-white cockatoo that squawked and flew to the highest perch.
“He’s scared,” said Yasser, 5, the family’s youngest member and only one born in America.
Moving to a new country was scary too, said Hussain and Arshad, recalling their pre-move impressions. “Everything we’d seen seemed to be about fighting,” said Hussain. But instead of the violent America they’d viewed on TV and in movies, Lansing was welcoming, which allowed the family to find their footing.
For Faaza, adjusting to the English language was harder than expected, but she did appreciate a number of differences from Iraq – such as how much better people drove in America. “Here, everybody follows the rules — that makes life easier,” she said. “In Baghdad, people park and drive however they want!”
The children have adapted quickly to American life. At Everett last year, Rokaia played on her seventh-grade basketball team. “We took fourth place, five wins and one loss,” she said proudly. Her brown eyes sparkled as she anticipated trying out for track, and excitedly described a three-day dance workshop led by a touring group that visited her school. She dreams of studying medicine with a focus on women’s health or oncology. “Both seem interesting,” she said.
Like his sister, Arshad is interested in medicine, but with a focus on zoo animals rather than humans. A strong athlete, he swam varsity last year as an Everett High School freshman, competing in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle and backstroke events. “I’m not that good,” he said, despite an impressive first place finish in a 50-meter freestyle event.
With a love for math and science, Hussain, a senior at Everett, wants to pursue engineering. Throughout high school, he participated in Michigan State University’s Gear Up on Saturdays, a program that prepares youth for college life, and he just won a coveted spot on the program’s annual Ivy League tour.
Hussain had hoped to attend MSU, but because he lived away from Lansing for a time during high school, he was ineligible for scholarships that would’ve made the school affordable. While it was disappointing, especially after he received his acceptance letter, Hussain remains practical.
“I didn’t apply to any other colleges in order to remain close to home,” he explained. Hussain, who helps his dad at United Auto Sales every day after school and on weekends, plans to take general education classes at Lansing Community College, then transfer to MSU to complete his bachelor’s degree.
In fact, Hussain could end up carpooling with his mom; Faaza already attends LCC, studying English in preparation for the nursing assistant program in the fall. She’s pursuing nursing because she “likes to help people,” but she also has dreams and ideas for her own business.
Faaza is generous with her time and committed to the Lansing community. She’s a translator for the Lansing School District through the Refugee Development Center. She teaches Arabic to children at the Islamic Center, offering rides to children who need them. She also leads a sewing circle that’s as much about advising and assisting the women as it is about stitching.
Recent refugees can understandably find their new situation overwhelming, said Faaza. “Many people sit at home and don’t do anything. They have no idea what to do and need to learn everything,” she said. “It’s good if we work and study and communicate with others. It makes us look better, too. They say America doesn’t like us. But it isn’t true.”
Resettled in Lansing, Faaza and her family have created a new world for themselves, abundant with work and school, faith and friends.
“We feel here that friends are like family,” Faaza said. “When we came, we have nothing. But now we have a whole life.”
Late on the night of June 2, 1979, a Hmong family slipped out the door and into the forest, heading south towards the Mekong River. The young father led the way, followed by his wife, carrying a tiny baby boy, only one month and 10 days old. Three boys and a girl hurried beside them. They could travel only at night so as not to be seen by the soldiers hunting the Hmong.
Now, 38 years later, that infant being carried to safety in his mother’s arms sits in his office at the Lansing School District and recounts that desperate night.
“They were carrying everything — food, me, one of my uncles, who was only 8 years old then,” explains Tou Vue, the network engineer of the district’s Technology Department. “He had to be carried a lot.”
In May of 1975, communist forces overran the headquarters of the CIA-supported army of Hmong General Vang Pao, who had been fighting in support of American troops for almost 15 years against the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao. The CIA helped Vang Pao and other Hmong leaders escape to the US. Then, the Laotian Army began to seek revenge.
“We were being chased down,” Tou says. “We had to get to the border of Laos and Thailand. We had to cross a big river to get to Thailand. A lot of people died trying to get across that river to the other side.”
In the years following, tens of thousands of Hmong fled Laos on foot, crossing the Mekong River into Thailand, heading to the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, ten miles south of the border.
“We arrived at Ban Vinai in late June of 1979,” Tou explains, showing the location of the camp on his smart phone. “We left the camp on June 24, 1980, heading for Flint, Michigan, where our original sponsors were.”
Life in the new country was not easy.
“There was a language barrier, a food barrier, cultural changes,” Tou says.
“I had three uncles and an aunt with us. Fortunately, my dad came upon a Laotian lady in church who was part of Refugee Services in the Flint area that sponsored us. Through her, he was able to find the rest of my uncles that lived in Lansing. Three days later, we moved to Lansing.”
From there, the family gradually began to adapt to the new environment and make progress in their new home. For Tou, school provided the path forward.
“It was a challenge going to school,” Tou says.
“My parents didn’t know how to speak English, but I was fortunate to have older uncles and older cousins that I was able to work along with. When I started going to school, they had an English as a second language program at Walnut School. Refugee children from all the different schools were going to Walnut because that’s where the ESL program was. I stopped the ESL program about 3rd grade, and then just did regular schooling. I graduated from Eastern High School in 1997.”
“The biggest challenges were getting adapted to the Westernized world and learning to handle any racial inequality that we encountered,” he remembers. “People were not aware who the Hmong were. When we arrived here, there were only 12 Hmong families.”
After graduating from Eastern, Tou attended Lansing Community College and earned an associate’s degree in computer information systems before transferring to Davenport University, where he completed his bachelor of science degree in IT and network engineering.
Thanks to great mentoring, he had already begun his transition into the work force. “During college, I started working for the Lansing School District at Eastern High School as a building media support technician,” Tou explains.
“I worked there about two or three years, and then I transferred to the LSD Technology Department.
“At LCC, I started teaching part-time in 2001 in the Information Technology Department. I’ve been there 15 years as an associate adjunct professor. I started teaching at Davenport University nine years ago. My specialty is networking.”
In fact, his parents, Pang Chai Vue and Yer Vue, still live in Lansing. “We came here and never left,” says Tou with a smile. “We liked it here and never made a move.”
The schooling and mentorship he received through the Lansing schools were key to his success.
“If I was to name one person that made a big impact on me, it would be Dotti Shonkwiler,” Tou says. “She was amazing. She provided lots of guidance and advice to me. During the 4 years I was at Eastern, she did everything not only for the Hmong kids, but for lots of Asian kids. She was the advisor of the Asian Club. During my last two years of schooling, junior and senior, I was the president of the Asian Club, so I worked with Dotti all the time.”
“I took advantage of the opportunity I was given here and got the most out of it,” says Tou. “I enjoy working here, and I enjoy teaching because I can give back by being able to mentor others so they can be as successful as I have been or even more. I’ve seen lots of successful students who have gone through IT programs and done well.”
His advice to incoming refugees is “This is the land of opportunity. The resources are here. I always tell my students, ‘What you put in is what you get.’ That’s my motto.”
Otis Ebulela left the tumultuous Democratic Republic of the Congo with his mother, father, ten siblings and two cousins in 2007.
They made their way to a refugee camp in Tanzania where they spent three years — getting separated from one of his brothers along the way.
In 2010, they were officially able to resettle the rest of the family in the United States.
They spent their first few days in New York City, where Otis recalls being anxious of what was to come.
“You know, when you first come in the country, you don’t know what’s going on. But, like, most of the things I learned about America was on TV, but, when I came in real life and I saw something different, it was kind of scary.”
He was surprised to see people outside with their shirts off in the late spring air, too frigid for his West African blood.
“In the Congo, when a man walks around with no shirt on, you think there is something wrong with them or they might be trouble,” Otis said.
It felt abnormal.
“America was not the paradise I thought it was in my mind in the Congo,” he said.
The family was quickly resettled and welcomed to Lansing, where they still reside. Most Africans in Lansing will visit a newcomer family when they arrive, Otis said. “When we came, people from different countries, they came to visit us and welcome us.”
Things in Michigan were different. Though quieter and colder, Lansing was just what Otis needed to thrive. When he first moved here, he knew very little English, limiting his educational and work prospects, so he spent a lot of time at the Refugee Development Center.
“I had broken English when we came, and life was difficult because I couldn’t understand anything. I started going to the RDC — learning my ABC’s and everything from the beginning. I started knowing a little bit of English.”
Otis’ English today is nearly flawless, even if he won’t agree.
Many newcomer refugees move from where they are originally resettled, but the Ebulelas stayed in Lansing.
“I just feel like I’m peaceful here,” said Otis. “When I don’t see no trouble, I don’t worry about war and people who are gonna come kill somebody for no reason.”
Otis believes that Lansing is different because of the warmth of the community.
“People are friendly, and some people love to welcome new families, and they help with everybody. Even I can tell in the neighborhoods. We do have some good people around here. That’s what I love about Michigan.”
After some time on Lansing’s Eastside, Otis and his family now live in Delta Township in a two-story, baby blue home with white trim and a deep front porch. He bought it for his parents, working tirelessly as a warehouse associate at Meijer. He started working there the year he moved to Lansing — after a short stint at Baryames Cleaners — and has been there ever since. As one of the oldest sons, he has taken it upon himself to provide for his family.
“I work so hard to make sure that everything my family needs, they have it,” said Otis.
When the Ebulelas moved to Delta Township, they were greeted with gifts and cards from many in the neighborhood. His sister and her family bought a house in the same neighborhood after she started a family.
“It’s a good neighborhood. People look out for each other. In the winter, I won’t just plow my side, I’ll plow for the neighbors by me that need it.”
The driveway of their home is lined with cars, not only because the Ebulelas are a large family, but also because Otis — in tune with the automotive roots of his new home — loves cars.
His first car was a modest 2004 Toyota Corolla. After that it was a 2008 Dodge Charger in red. Otis souped it up, complete with rims and tinted windows. After being pulled over one too many times, a cop jested with him about his car being the kind they tend to stop.
So, he bought a yellow Camaro. After a few others, he landed on his current beauty: a charcoal Porsche Panamera. What’s different about his sports car affinity, one might ask? Otis has purchased four-seaters, so his family can enjoy the ride along with him. Even if he won’t let them drive.
Otis is sometimes nostalgic for the people he knew and the way things were back in the day in the D.R.C.
“I miss home when I think about my childhood friends. It feels like I miss them because here, after work, I gotta spend time sleeping or going to the gym, but back home you could have friends sitting outside and exchanging minds and talking. There’s not that much of that here. Everybody’s in their houses. People are working. People are busy with life.”
Otis turns 30 in June. He plans to head to Toronto to visit his brother — the one who was separated from the family on their way to Tanzania. They weren’t sure if he was alive at first, but after being in Lansing for sometime, they got wind of the wonderful news that he was safe and had been resettled in Canada. They were reunited after 10 years apart.
Otis and most of the other Ebulelas plan for Lansing to be their home forever. As he pointed to the grass on his front yard, he said “This is home now. And pretty soon I’m applying for my citizenship, and this will be home for good. And I am happy here because this country is peaceful, the people are nice, and there’s a lot of opportunity here.”
For Durga and Dixya Acharya, there was no straight line to building the American dream or finding their way to Lansing.
Both were born in Bhutan, a small country tucked into the Himalayas, in the 80s, at a time when the country was undergoing ethnic cleansing as part of the “one nation, one people” effort.
The brutality stripped people like the Acharyas of their citizenship and basic human rights.
“My father was imprisoned and tortured,” says Durga, now 32. “Most of the males were tortured and many of the females were raped and tortured.”
Both of the couple’s families were forced to leave Bhutan for Nepal’s refugee camps. He was 8 when his parents fled with him and his three siblings; Dixya was 4.
“We had to leave everything behind,” says Dixya, now 28.
“There was no transportation, so we walked to the Indian border,” Durga adds. It took them several days to make the trip of more than 100 miles to get to the refugee camps.
Although the families had escaped the imminent dangers in Bhutan, they lived in abject poverty for the 17 years they spent in the refugee camp in Nepal.
“People died because of the hot climate and poor sanitation,” Dixya says.
“Our families did fight to go back, but there was no hope,” Durga says.
Durga’s family came to the United States in 2008 and Dixya’s family arrived in 2009.
Now, they are among about 300 Bhutanese refugees who live in the Lansing area.
“I never dreamed of coming to America,” Durga says.
Durga became a student at Michigan State University in 2009.
After graduating, he became a pharmacy tech worker in a lab. He went on to medical school and is currently in a residency program in Pontiac, coming home on the weekends.
Being away from his family and his and Dixya’s 1-year-old twins is hard, but both he and Dixya are clear that they are working to bring security to their family.
Dixya has worked as an interpreter for other refugees as they get established in our community. She also worked at the Refugee Development Center (RDC). Since having the twins, she became a full-time, stay-at-home mother.
“When I worked at RDC, I used to go house to house to welcome people to the community,” she says. “I understand what it is like, because it was so stressful when I first got here.”
She says the center and other resettlement agencies are essential in helping refugees make the difficult transition to life in this country and in the communities where they resettle.
Dixya says that although she knows her babies need her at home, “I miss working at RDC so much because I love being a part of that.”
Like many who have resettled in the Lansing area, the Acharyas have built a life that includes extended family.
They worked hard to create an intergenerational home that includes Durga’s mother, Januka Acharya, 52, who works full-time at Peckham Industries, and helps with the babies in the evenings.
Durga’s father, who was a businessman in Bhutan, suffers from PTSD and extreme depression, because of what he endured.
Their Lansing house is also home base for Durga’s sister, who is a student, and his younger brother, who is in the U.S. Army.
Durga and Dixya became naturalized United States citizens in the past few years. She says her father, who lives on the East Coast, is also a naturalized citizen now.
The Acharyas agree that there are a lot of misconceptions about refugees.
“Our parents came here for a better life for their children,” Durga says with pride. They both say their families prioritized education for their children, making sacrifices so they could learn English and acquire the skills they needed to build a solid life here.
That same holds true for Durga and Dixya. When they were looking for a home here, their priority was finding a good school district.
Dixya knows that many people don’t understand their refugee story and the dangers that drove them to flee.
They would like people to understand their drive and hard work.
“We are not taking people’s jobs. We pay taxes. My brother serves this country,” Durga says. “We are Americans, and we just want all the things others want for their families.”
On many nights, Moe Israel will lift his youngest son into his arms and wait tables at Naing Myanmar Family Restaurant with the boy’s head on his shoulder.
Jason is 3. He has a space between two coolers that’s his. A papasan chair in Spartan green. An iPad with the LEGO Batman Movie game.
But sometimes he wants his father. And Moe wants to be with his kids.
The restaurant was his wife’s dream. When she was 12, Mi Thanda left her home in Karen State, where the country no longer known as Burma bends toward the Malay Peninsula.
Too many soldiers, her mother said.
“When they needed you to go to somewhere and to do something…” Mi trailed off. “My mom doesn’t want me to be like that.”
She went to live with an aunt in Thailand and was working in a Bangkok restaurant by age 14.
“I’m washing. I’m cooking. Four o’clock in the morning, my boss, we go shop, and we buy everything.”
Deliveries ran through a forest of elevators, up and down the city’s high rises. The hours were long on weekdays, shorter on Saturdays. Sundays were for church because the restaurant’s owner was a Christian.
“It’s very hard. We had to do many jobs. I think, ‘I can do my own.’”
Naing Myanmar shares a weathered strip mall off Cedar Street on Lansing’s south side with a medical marijuana dispensary.
The wallpaper is painted with Thai dancers and a peacock and the Karaweik, a replica of a floating Burmese palace built in the 1970s on the edge of Royal Kandawgyi Lake.
There is a photo of Moe and Mi with a gesticulating Virg Bernero, Lansing’s mayor, and one in which state Senator Curtis Hertel Jr. presents them with a tribute from the Michigan Legislature acknowledging their “perseverance in the face of extreme and undue adversity.”
It refers, in part, to the fact that their water was shut off in 2015 because their landlord stopped paying the bill. Loyal customers donated nearly $10,000 to help them move, though the water was back on before they had to.
Two copies of that tribute hang on opposite walls. There is also a framed certificate from TripAdvisor congratulating them on their first five-bubble review, left in April 2014. “This might be the best Asian restaurant in the Mid-Michigan area,” it begins, misspelling intact.
“My mom and my boss in Thailand, they give me recipes over there,” Mi said.
They serve the beef curry her mom made when she was a girl. House tempuras. A bean and pickled tea leaf salad with a tang strange to the Midwestern palate, though they order the leaves from Fort Wayne.
There’s the pad see yew and tom yum soup she cooked in Bangkok.
On weekend nights, she makes mohinga, a fish soup that’s one of the national dishes of Burma, and a Malaysian flatbread called roti canai.
Malaysia is where they met.
Moe had marched in protest through the streets of Rangoon with thousands of other students in August 1988. The demonstrations against one-party rule spread across the country but ended with a bloody military coup. Burma became Myanmar.
“Army, military, they wanted to cash me out. So we run,” he said.
He walked and rode buses, first to Thailand, then Malaysia.
“Give money, they take you underground.”
For 13 years, Moe worked in a car factory. He and Mi met in a church in Kuala Lumpur. They married in 2004 — she was barely 20, he in his mid-30s — and opened a restaurant. Their older son, Samuel, was born the following year. When Samuel was 5, they left.
Moe was in Malaysia as a refugee, his legal status precarious. The United Nations gave them a chance to go elsewhere.
Which is how Moe came to work at a Starbucks in Boston’s Logan Airport.
He remembers it as a “very hard time.” They took English classes in the morning. He worked until after the last flights departed, arriving home hours after his son was asleep.
“He very scared to open a restaurant,” Mi said. “I need it. I wanted to open it.”
If they opened another restaurant, she would remind him, the family could be together.
“She say, ‘Do this, it’s a better choice,’” Moe recalled. “‘It’s family.’”
Lansing had Burmese immigrants. It was cheaper than Boston. They went.
On a Thursday afternoon, as the last table from the lunch rush rose to leave, Jason wandered into the dining room.
“I want watermelon,” he announced.
“Two pieces?” his father asked.
Behind the window that connects the restaurant’s dining room to the kitchen, Mi pulled a soccer-ball sized melon from a cooler.
Their days in the restaurant are long, from nine in the morning often until 10 at night.
“When you run a restaurant, you have to do everything,” Mi said, “but I’m happy
I do it.”
On Sundays, they fill shopping carts at Horrocks Farm Market with peppers, cabbage and cucumbers for the coming week.
It’s easier than it was in the years when Moe worked night shifts at an auto supplier and then at the Meijer warehouse while Mi ran the restaurant. Easier than the fretful first months, when they realized the Burmese community alone couldn’t support them.
A story in the Lansing City Pulse in April 2014 turned the tide, they say. The day after it came out, there was a small crowd. Mi wasn’t ready. She called neighbors to help wait tables.
Moe talks proudly about Samuel starting seventh-grade at Lansing Christian School this fall. They’ve paid the tuition, thousands of dollars.
They’ll return to Myanmar for the first time in decades this summer, take the boys to meet their grandparents. The restaurant will close for weeks.
“We work hard, spend for family,” Moe said.
“When I come back, we can start again.
I trust my God. I want to show my sons what my life (was) like.”
Most 14-year old boys get lost in video games, sports or homework.
At 14, Diego Ixcotoyac-Us made the solo desert trek to the United States.
Diego was born in Guatemala in 1997. When he was 4, his 11-member family moved from a small village to a bigger city. His parents opened a convenience store, which temporarily provided for the family.
“It went out of business after we could not get more supplies,” Diego recalls.
The family turned to planting vegetables. A productive onion crop allowed them to build a house of their own for the first time.
Life shifted again when the Guatemalan economy took a downturn.
Diego’s father, brother and sister left home every morning to look for temporary work. Food was hard to come by.
At 12, Diego started farming on his own so he could help support his family.
Another, more dangerous threat loomed over Diego, though. Years of extreme violence and rampant gang activity in Guatemala threatened Diego’s very life.
He decided to try to go to the United States.
His mother cried and said no.
His hardened father understood.
Without telling his parents, Diego planned his trip. He made a deal with a “coyote” (a smuggler) for 35,000 quetzals, the equivalent of $4,000.
“I did not have the money up front, so my parents had to say yes to finish the agreement,” he said. “The coyote took our house document as payment, so if we did not pay the money back,
he would take it.”
His parents risked everything to send him to a safer place.
In the early morning of May 12, 2012, Diego left his home with only a backpack containing a jacket, a pair of jeans, a T-shirt, a pair of socks and two pairs of underwear.
His family had celebrated Mother’s Day just two days before. He would not see them again for four years.
Diego’s journey consisted of long car rides, longer bus rides, sleepless nights in the open desert and hours of walking. Danger and uncertainty punctuated his every step.
Despite being robbed by Mexican police, conned by a second coyote and enduring a shortage of food, Diego remained determined.
After weeks of travel through Guatemala and Mexico, Diego reached the Arizona border. A U.S. Border Patrol helicopter dashed his excitement as it landed in his path.
Border Patrol took him to Southwest Key in Tucson, a national nonprofit organization committed to keeping kids out of institutions. He was granted refugee status.
“When I came to the facility, I looked at the U.S. map,” Diego said. “It was the first time I’d seen it and I finally understood how big it was.
“It made me feel there is space for everyone if they could come here. It made me excited.”
After five months of attending school, going before judges and learning English, he matched with a foster family in Michigan.
Diego moved to Lansing in December 2012 through the help of Samaritas, an agency that helps refugees, including unaccompanied minors, settle in America.
“I never thought I could get my legal status,” he said. “It was awesome.
I got so excited.”
And life in Lansing has been anything but boring the last five years.
In 2016, he graduated from Sexton High School, a math, science and engineering academy. Physics was his favorite class. Graduation without his family by his side was bittersweet.
He mastered English after devising his own memorization system.
Now, at 19, he works full-time as property manager at Summer Place Townhomes, a housing complex serving refugees.
He works construction on the side and hopes to start flipping houses to provide safe, affordable housing for people like him. He’d like to farm. He loves to work and work hard.
And to help other young refugees, he serves on the Youth Advocacy Board
Diego earned his permanent residency and will apply for citizenship when he is eligible in 2019 — and then hopes to help his sisters get a U.S. visa.
“I don’t want them to go through what I did,” he said.
Meanwhile, he sends money to his family in Guatemala to help them survive.
A brief visit reconnected them in 2016.
He knows that some people don’t understand refugees’ challenges and contributions. It doesn’t bother him too much. He is too busy working hard and moving forward.
“I want people to know what we’ve gone through and what we want to accomplish,” he said.
“We all hope one day they’ll understand.”
Dreamland. That’s what Murtadha Abdul called America as he grew up in the city of Basra in southern Iraq. Back then, America seemed as fantastic and full of potential as it was impossible to reach. Friends and family called him a dreamer, but Murtadha believed — in himself, and in America.
These days, most people know Murtadha as Mark, and his life is as American as it gets. Now 35, he’s a manufacturing supervisor at automotive supplier Williamston Products Inc. and lives with his wife, Stephanie; their 3-year-old daughter, Layla; and his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Olivia. He’s worked with local courts and police departments as an Arabic translator. His current dream is to bring his parents and siblings to America, so they can share in the American dream.
It’s a story Mark says could only happen in America, a place where he arrived as a refugee in 2010.
America took him in because Basra became too unsafe. Mark graduated from a university with a degree in business administration and specialized in warehousing and logistics. He worked for the U.S. military and American contractors during and after the war. When the war ended, the violence did not.
“You could barely walk down the street. It was so terrible,” Mark said. “I decided I had to get out of Iraq.”
When he left his home and family in 2008, Mark didn’t know where he would end up. He became a refugee in Turkey and worked as a logistics liaison between the Turkish and Iraqi governments. Two years later, he got the news he was waiting for: he’d been assigned to a permanent home.
He was coming home to America.
“I still remember the day I arrived at the Lansing airport. Everyone else had someone waiting for them. I was all alone, until someone from St. Vincent Charities asked if I was Murtadha. I knew no one. I had no idea what life was like here. I was all by myself except for Denise from St. Vincent.”
St. Vincent Catholic Charities helped Mark settle into an apartment and found him a twice-a-week cleaning job at the Delta Township General Motors plant. For some, it would have been a big come-down after being an inter-government liaison. Not for Mark.
“As refugees, we have to accept it. We will accept anything,” he said. “In Iraq, there is no hope. You are not safe and your family is not safe. For me, any day I wasn’t worrying about being shot at was a good day.”
One incident made it clear to Mark that America was the sanctuary he had yearned for. Months after arriving, Mark relied on his bicycle to commute between Lansing and his Delta Township job. One night, a police cruiser pulled up beside him, lights flashing, and asked him where he was going.
“I thought, ‘What have I done?’” Mark said. “I told him I was going home from work. The police officer told me to put my bicycle in the trunk and he drove me home. Then he gave me his card and he told me to call him if I ever needed help again.”
One snowy night, desperate to get home, Mark pulled out the card and called for help. The police officer came to get him — in his own, personal car and on his night off.
“I thought, ‘This is not something that would have happened in Iraq,’” Mark said. “It was a moment where I felt that this was a safe haven. That’s when I knew I wanted my family to come here so that they could experience it, too.”
But before that could happen, Mark had to prepare for them. He took a manufacturing job at Williamston Products that offered more hours. His boss saw his hard work ethic, and he was promoted to team leader and then truck driver and materials handler. Eventually, he was asked to become a manufacturing supervisor.
Williamston Products has hired many refugees over the years from several countries, including Cubans, Sudanese and Congolese. While it takes extra effort to overcome challenges, such as language barriers or transportation issues, the benefits of hiring refugees are considerable. “They are excellent workers who bring a lot of stability to the company,” President and CEO Frank Remesch said. “They teach our other workers about the world, and they add a lot to the workforce.”
Even as Mark established his life here, he never forgot the people at St. Vincent who helped him find his way in America. He worked for the charity and wanted to learn more about the Catholic faith that drives its values.
“In 2011, I went to St. John’s Catholic Church in East Lansing,” Mark said. “I started exploring. I was shocked by the music — it was unlike anything I’d heard in Iraq.
I began studying every Sunday for a year and a half.”
Catholicism connected to him in a way the Muslim faith never did, he said. With trepidation, he called Iraq to tell his mother. She just wanted him to be happy. Mark was baptized — “I found faith and opened my arms to Him,” as he puts it.
Finding his wife, Stephanie, also brought him joy. They married in 2012, and her family welcomed him into theirs.
“Sometimes I think it’s a dream and I’m going to wake up,” Mark said. “Everyone here has welcomed me.”
It is why he was taken aback when the federal government announced the refugee ban in early 2017, threatening to quash his plans to bring his family over.
“I was so upset,” he said. “I just want to see my mother one more time. I haven’t seen my family since 2008.”
He’s confident he will. Mark believes America will do the right thing. America always does, he said.
“America is the dreamland,” he said. “America doesn’t ever turn its back on someone who needs help. If we do that, where are they going to go?”
Binod Magar tells people he’s from Michigan.
“My forefathers were from Nepal,” Binod said. “They went to Bhutan and came back to Nepal as refugees. Nepal was my forefathers’ land.”
But Nepal didn’t let refugees claim citizenship, and the Bhutanese government never accepted his family as Bhutanese.
“I struggled through my childhood with that,” he said. “So, now I just say I’m from Michigan.”
Binod was 10 months old when his parents moved him and his six older brothers and sisters from their home in Bhutan into one of Nepal’s seven refugee camps.
He was 5 or 6 when he understood he was without a country. The realization came at a soccer match between Bhutan and Nepal.
“I couldn’t support either team,” he said. “The way people on both sides were using words against the other team and country hurt me. I found out, ‘Wow, I’m not one of them. Either of them.’”
Some of his older siblings left the camp first, settling in Lansing. Binod, his parents and an aunt followed about a year later, arriving in Lansing in 2010 when he was 18.
His entire immediate family lives in Lansing now. His parents run the International Food Mart on South Cedar Street, selling international food, drinks and gifts.
Although Binod was attending the equivalent of college when he left Nepal, he was placed in the ninth grade at Everett High School.
“I thought I knew a lot of English when I came here, but I didn’t,” he said, smiling. Binod credits his teachers and mentors at Everett for helping him graduate with a 4.0 GPA.
“Right now, most stores like ours get their vegetables from outside of the state,” he said. “I’m trying to develop a chain to get vegetables into our store and other Nepali stores from urban farms in Detroit and other places in Michigan.”
Binod is humble and quiet and often reluctant to talk about himself as a refugee.
Sitting in the office of his family’s store, Binod shared a story about hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains when he was stationed in Georgia. He met another hiker who admired his Army-issue backpack, and they walked together for a few hours.
“We talked about the Army, politics. I stayed neutral, but when it got to the point where he shared his detest of immigrants and refugees, I couldn’t stay silent. I said, ‘I am a refugee.’ He wouldn’t believe me.”
The man told Binod refugees were terrorists and caused problems in their communities.
“I told him we are not all like that. There are some, but that’s in every community, whether it’s a refugee or people who are born here. There are bad apples everywhere.”
That conversation — and a few others he wishes he’d had with friends who are no longer in his life because of their views — convinced him it’s important to talk about being a refugee.
“Have a conversation with us. We are just human, no different from anybody else,” he said. “I hope people could take a second to think about how it was for us as refugees.”
Hello, my friend. How are you?”
The Somali customer smiles at the greeting from Paul Titov, 39, co-owner of American International Bulk Food on Lansing’s south side.
Despite the rain pouring down on this day, customers flow through the store steadily with a mix of languages being heard from aisle to aisle.
Paul, whose family has owned the store since 1997, switches rapidly between Russian and English as he assists another customer, then speaks to his father, Eugene, and then asks a question of the butcher preparing orders at the meat counter.
For Paul and his family, the store’s success is a realization of their hopes and dreams when they fled to America — and mid-Michigan — in the early 1990s.
“The opportunities and safety that this country afforded us were not options for us in Azerbaijan at that time,” Paul said.
That’s because Paul and his fellow Armenians were the target of violent resentment arising from political unrest and conflict in their region of Azerbaijan. This turmoil culminated in January 1990 with a week-long attack against Armenian residents in the city of Baku that included beatings, torture, murders and expulsions.
The Titovs had fled to Russia prior to this and stayed with relatives. When they learned of an initiative allowing Armenians to apply for refugee status to America, the Titovs began the process.
“The interview process was scary,” said Paul’s mother, Tatyana, 67. “I thought for sure we would not be allowed.”
But their refugee status was confirmed. Originally told they would be going to San Francisco, the Titovs learned a month before the trip in December 1990 that the Lansing area would be their destination.
The adjustment to American life was not easy at the start.
“My family came here with so little,” Paul said. “Back home, my father was a doctor. My mother was a teacher. Everything had to be started again from scratch.”
Eugene began working as a janitor at Jacobson’s, a now-defunct department store. Tatyana worked at Sears as a salesperson for five years and volunteered at St. Vincent Catholic Charities as a translator for refugees, before being hired as an English tutor at Lansing Community College.
Even Paul’s sister Erica (whose Russian name is Araksina), worked part-time at Sparrow Hospital while attending high school. She was 16 when they arrived.
“That was hard as a teenager to not speak English, to have no friends,” said Erica, now 43. “But those challenges make you stronger.”
To help them learn English faster, Eugene required it to be spoken in the home at all times.
These days, Paul and Erica have flipped that script and require their children to speak Russian so they can maintain a connection to their Armenian past.
Paul and his wife, Asya Vardanova, have a 7-year-old daughter, Valerie. Erica and her husband, Igor Babayan, have two sons: Armen, 16, and Andronik, 11.
The Titovs have worked together to build up their business since buying it in 1997. Back then, it was called American Bulk Food. As their inventory expanded from bulk spices, rices and grains to include foods from more ethnic groups, they added "International" to the name and moved to their current location at 6016 S. Pennsylvania Ave.
Paul works closely with Lansing-area refugee services and immigrant groups to find out which groups are moving into the community so he can serve their needs.
He says while Middle Eastern and Eastern European customers have remained a strong element of their customer base, they’ve also seen the numbers of Syrians, Sudanese, Somalis and other groups grow in recent years.
“I’m constantly researching what foods can be added to our inventory,“ he said.
“We want to be a store that can accommodate the needs of all members of our Lansing community. It’s our way to give back to a community that’s given so much to us.”
The store also honors the memory of Asya, Paul’s paternal grandmother, who died two years ago at the age of 103.
She was a survivor who not only escaped the killings of Armenians in Baku, but also avoided being one of the 2 million Armenians slaughtered in Turkey as the Ottoman Empire ended.
As reported in a 2015 article in the Lansing State Journal, published just days before her death, her family escaped into Georgia in 1920 when she was just 7 years old.
By 1933, she had married into a wealthy family and moved to Moscow. Near the end of World War II, her husband and many of his relatives had been jailed by the Soviet government.
Living on her own after giving birth to Eugene in 1944, Asya saved two Jewish families by hiding them in her basement while housing Nazi soldiers upstairs.
Refusing to house the soldiers could have put her family at risk. As Tatyana said in 2015: “She was sure a brave lady. It was very scary, but she was not scared.”
That same brave spirit helped guide the Titovs as they journeyed to Lansing nearly 27 years ago.
Even today, Paul marvels at the sacrifice his parents made.
“Being almost the same age as they were, I try to imagine what they went through at that time, to be willing to give up all they had built back home in Russia and lose everything they worked for,” Paul said. “I panic now just imagining it.”
“But I’ve got to give it to them. They didn’t want the same thing for us. They wanted stability in our lives. That’s why I appreciate what we’ve been able to achieve here. It’s what makes America the greatest country in the world.”
The first thing you encounter when visiting Khaliku Kaba’s south Lansing home is a garden, well tended. The lush shrubs that create the real boundary to his yard make the fence line irrelevant.
This yard and the house within were won at auction. Khaliku worked diligently to save for a home. When he discovered a house being auctioned off near where he was renting, he placed a bid never expecting to win.
Inside, there is a cat named Lucy.
“I named her after the mom in the movie ‘Home.’” She purrs and arches her back. The home smells of aromatic food.
Khaliku has learned three languages in his travels. He says none of them come easily to his tongue.
Khaliku was adopted as a child, but he didn’t know it. He discovered only after a family vacation to Uganda, when his adoptive parents told him after leaving that he had just met his birth parents. His adoptive parents lived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, though they were Guinean. He had assumed the same of himself.
“You may know about racism as an American problem, but we also have it over there.”
Conflict between tribes forced Khaliku’s adoptive family off their land in the D.R.C., because they were not the “right” tribe. His father was beaten to death. With loss of life came loss of land.
The entire family — Khaliku’s mom and his four siblings — were forced to walk toward Uganda. They spent months in limbo, sharing rest and food with other displaced families, unless no one had food or shelter. At times, there was no place to rest and no food to eat.
The family eventually decided to use what little money they had left to rent a home in Kampala, Uganda. They did not want to go to a refugee camp if they could help it.
Khaliku began working as a gardener in the countryside bordering the city. Every month he would send money home until, finally, he decided to return for a visit. When he got there, he found the home they had shared was empty.
Thus began his persistent visits to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to locate his family. Khaliku visited so often that he was noticed by a woman on staff and placed on a list to be resettled in the United States.
“I don’t know if she liked me or what,” he said. “I think she thought I was vulnerable because of my age.”
He was 16.
As the only family member registered with the U.N., he was the head of the household. This made it possible for his family to travel with him. After more than a year of diligent searching, he decided to move to Lansing, Michigan, alone. Upon arrival, he labored and saved up for a home so that when his family arrived, they could live together.
“I like working,” he said. “I never depended on (governmental aid), and I never took anything because others need it more than I do.”
Khaliku’s first job was at the Comfort Inn in Okemos. Since 2011, he has worked at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, saving enough to buy the modest, two-bedroom home he lives in today.
After resettling in Lansing, Khaliku emailed the U.N. asking for help locating his family. They were finally reconnected at the end of 2010.
Khaliku has been able to visit his siblings in Kampala, Uganda, but not his mother, who relocated to Sudan. He’s working to coordinate their relocation to Lansing. The current political climate makes that task more daunting and uncertain.
He is still working, saving and tending to the place where he hopes his family will find an end to their displacement too.
While meeting Khaliku’s cat or listening to the plans for his garden, you cannot see his father beaten to death. You cannot see his family’s land stolen or the forced wandering along the border of Uganda that followed. You cannot see the family lost and then found, but still not reunited.
All you can see is what Khaliku asserts. Now that he has found his home, he will not be leaving again. Adopted, displaced, resettled, disconnected, transported and then finally, resettled.
In Lansing, Khaliku is home.
Gently pressing rice balls on to a rectangular sheet of pressed seaweed, Luai pats thin strips of vegetables and avocados into the center of a sushi roll. Using a plastic-wrapped wooden sushi mat, in seconds he rolls the sheet of seaweed with precision, the rice meeting neatly on both sides. Sushi rolls quickly accumulate. With a long-handled knife, he slices the rolls, three at a time, into bite-size spheres and then packages the uniform slices into lidded trays. For a final garnish, he separates the slices with a few ginger shavings and a dollop of wasabi.
It’s this type of attention to each detail that has made the 27-year-old’s sushi sampler pack highly sought after. His business, AFC Sushi, makes everything fresh daily from a small booth in a Kroger store on Lansing’s west side. Sean, one of his regular customers, says it’s the best store-bought sushi in the area. But his regular customers are also quick to say that the service and attention he pays them are just as much a factor in his ongoing success as his culinary skill. Peering over a Plexiglass wall, he greets each person who stops by with a warm, friendly smile; they often smile in return.
This friendliness is what keeps Amawng, his wife and three children here. “Lansing feels like home,” he said. “The people are so nice to refugees.”
When he was in his early teens, violence, the threat of imprisonment and the desire for freedom drove Amawng and his brother, who were Chin refugees, to flee from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) to a refugee camp in Malaysia. Though considered one of the four founding ethnic nationalities, the Chin people, who have occupied the hilly northwestern region of Myanmar bordering India for nearly 700 years, face opposition from the Buddhist majority government. Despite a population of roughly 1.6 million people, the Chin lack basic rights held by other citizens. “People flee for a better life and freedom. Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, equality,” Amawng said.
Following three wars in the 1800s, Burma became a colony under British rule. Gaining its independence in 1948, the colonial-implanted democracy of Burma was thwarted by a military police coup led by General Ne Wen. The regime, which reigned from 1962 to 2010, has been named one of the world’s most repressive and abusive regimes. Buddhists, who dominated the government, targeted the rights of Muslims and Christians. “The military discriminates,” Amawng said. “We were forced to convert our religion to theirs or be arrested and put in jail for life or for decades.”
Citizens were left without legal power to confront an authoritarian regime. In 1988, the Burmese government briefly ended its rule as a one-party nation. But the militia voided the newly elected governance in 1989 and Burma officially became Myanmar, with rule under a parliamentary government. Government agencies continue to document police corruption directed against the Chin and other ethnic groups in Myanmar that follow Muslim and Christian faiths.
Restricted from travel within their own country, Amawng and his brother lived in fear for years. Police collected bribes and physically tormented or imprisoned those who attempted to find employment and educational opportunities or who failed to convert to Buddhism or violated other ethnically sanctioned rights. So they fled. Arriving with a group of 30 Chin refugees in New York City, Amawng, who was 17 at the time, arrived as an unaccompanied minor and was placed with a foster family. Amawng ended up in Lansing with his foster family; his brother was placed in Australia.
As with most refugees, the language barrier was challenging for Amawng. Unable to communicate with his foster family, Amawng spent years in English classes at Eastern High School, vocational online language courses and attended Lansing Community College. After becoming proficient with his English skills, Amawng assisted refugees in processing homeowner documents, employment applications and reading their mail. It’s Amawng’s discipline, resourcefulness and optimism in the face of adversity that have driven him to success.
Consider his sushi franchise. Sushi is not a dish native to Myanmar, Amawng’s homeland. Amawng developed an interest in the delicacy while working as a sushi chef for a friend in Lansing.
Seeing sushi as a stepping stone to business success for himself, Amawng saved his paycheck for a plane ticket to California and enrolled in courses to learn how to operate his own business and purchase his own franchise. At the Kroger on Saginaw, Amawng’s franchise occupies a roughly 6-by-10-foot kitchen space. The booth is surrounded by baskets of crackers and buns and shelves of pickled ginger, wasabi paste and soy sauce.
Not only is Amawng a business owner, he’s a job creator. As he prepared his rolls, one of his employees peeled and julienned cucumbers, avocados and carrots, which are placed in precise rows inside shoebox-sized plastic bins. It’s one example of how refugees develop niche businesses that provide new jobs and opportunities for Lansing’s local economy.
Amawng values the support he’s received over the years. He credits his success to his foster family and even Lansing’s infrastructure, citing the Capital Area Transportation Authority, the regional bus system, as playing a key role in helping him travel from work to school over the years. “The great thing about Lansing is the public transportation. You can go anywhere,” he said.
Four years ago, he married his wife, Dawt, who was also born in Myanmar. He hopes to return to Myanmar soon to see his family, who he hasn’t seen in over a decade. He works extra hours at his second job, night shifts at a local manufacturing firm, to save what he can for the trip. As a result, he only gets to see his wife and three children for brief stints at a time. “I’m a busy guy,” Amawng said. Busy, but driven, by an unwavering hope to achieve a better future for himself and his family.
Razmin Ahmadzada had a little workshop back in Afghanistan.
Though he was only 16 himself, he was teaching other kids how to draw and paint. And he sketched whatever inspired him: Animals. Scenery. Beautiful women.
One day, a man came to see him at his shop.
“Stop what you are doing,” the man told Raz. “It is not acceptable.”
Raz didn’t ask who the man was. He knew: The man was Taliban.
And Raz knew what “not acceptable” meant. They would make an example of him.
“One day, they will kill me in front of people,” he thought. Raz knew people who had been killed by the Taliban, some in unspeakable ways.
“They know everything about us,” Raz, now 19, said quietly in the south Lansing apartment he shares with three other young Afghan men. “They can do whatever they want.”
It was his uncle who helped him get to safety. He arranged for Raz to travel by car to Kabul and fly to India, then onward to Malaysia and Indonesia.
It wasn’t the first time Raz had fled Afghanistan. He first left when he was 13, making his way to Pakistan and then Iran over a total of 12 treacherous days.
He spent part of his journey on a harrowing truck ride and spent days hiking through the mountains.
“It was so hot,” he said, “and there was nothing.”
He settled in Iran, surviving by working long days in construction. He spent his little free time studying under an artist he admired. “I would think, ‘One day I will get to school, I will finish college.’”
Eventually, though, he was caught and sent back to Afghanistan.
Years later, in Indonesia, Raz waited with thousands of other refugees. And waited. He smiles, now, remembering the day he got the news.
“I couldn’t believe I could go to America,” he said. “It was indescribable. I cannot put it into words.”
He has lived in Lansing for nearly a year, after starting out with a foster family in Detroit.
“Everybody respects each other. They smile,” he said. “I like it. We never learned that: treat well and get treated well.”
Raz goes to the Global Institute of Lansing almost every weekday, spending hours in a church basement working toward his high school diploma.
“Miss Paula, Miss Jane, Miss Kelly, Miss Barbara, Miss Sharon,” he said, rattling off the names of some of the volunteers. “They are so helpful.”
The Global Institute helps refugees and immigrants who want to work toward a better life. Many, like Raz, arrive as older teens and would age out of high school before earning enough credits to graduate.
The program makes it so they don’t have to settle for a GED, which would limit their prospects.
Instead, Raz will graduate soon and hopes to go to art school in California. His dream is to be a visual artist, maybe a filmmaker.
In the meantime, his days are busy. He works at Meijer about 30 hours a week, riding a bike or taking a bus or getting a ride with friends. He studies and takes his turn cooking and cleaning the apartment.
He follows his favorite artists online and often gets lost in his latest art project, painting for hours at a time. Sometimes he is able to connect with his four younger siblings back home via Facebook.
His mother passed away while he was in limbo in Indonesia. She is the one who sparked his love of art, drawing horses for him on cardboard boxes when he was little.
Raz knows he is lucky to live in a country where people are allowed to think — and speak — their own thoughts.
Where everyone is free to practice any religion, or none at all.
Where a teenager doesn’t have to fear being killed because his work — and art itself — is “not acceptable.”
He is making the most of the opportunity.
“It is not enough just to come to America,” he said, “but to (also) bring your dream to reality.”
Raz seems stunned when asked about his back-up plan. What will he do if he doesn’t get into college?
“There is no Plan B,” he says emphatically. “I will make it happen.”