The harrowing images and videos of refugees across the world narrowly fleeing destruction and devastation are gut-wrenching. The despair can leave one feeling heartbroken and wondering how to help these desperate strangers. An upcoming local fundraising event invites the community to hear songs and stories from refugees and raise funds to help those who have settled locally.
On Tuesday, Jan. 24 at 7 p.m., residents are invited to hear and see firsthand accounts, poems, songs and artwork from refugees who now call the Greater Lansing-area home. The free program at Haslett Community Church is for all-ages and open to the public. Donations will go to the Refugee Development Center (RDC), a grassroots organization located in Lansing that provides education, engagement and support for refugees and newcomers.
RDC Executive Director Erika Brown-Binion spoke to ELi about many of the organization’s mission and programs offered.
“A lot of what we do is founded in that belief that if we give people the tools they need, they’ll be able to thrive and remain there in our community and be contributing members of Greater Lansing,” she said. “We do English classes, afterschool programs, mentoring programs, digital literacy programs, home visits, we provide welcome kits to help people feel at home when they first arrive, and also supportive service programs like a women’s sewing circle, and middle school soccer team.”
Poet and president of the Lansing Poetry Club, Ruelaine Stokes, is organizing this special fundraising event. Sheknows the positive impact the RDC has on the community. Stokes previously worked for the RDC teaching English as a second language.
“They do tremendous support services for refugees, English language and technical training,” she said. “It’s a wonderful organization. They really need community support. There have been a lot of refugees from Afghanistan and now Ukraine that have been coming into the Lansing area. With the current inflation we’re experiencing in the economy, that has made some expenses like rent more challenging to meet.”
The event on Tuesday will combine music, poetry, art and education to raise awareness.
“We’re bringing some very talented musicians and poets together to create a program for people so we can learn more about what is happening with refugees in our area, and ways we can be supportive of that,” Stokes said.
In conjunction with the event, “Refuge in Lansing,” a photographic exhibit will be on display at the church.
“There’s a book and photo exhibit created by Lansing-area photographers and writers, showcasing stories about refugees who made the Lansing area their home, and lived here for 5, 10, 15 or 20-plus years,” Stokes said. “It’s a gorgeous book. The sales have been used to raise money to support refugee services in the Lansing area.”
Live music will be provided by local musicians including Judy Kabodian, Richard Illman, Barbara Freeman and Sally Potter. Poems and multicultural perspectives will be shared from Ulyana Maystrenko, a first-generation Ukranian American. Other poets include Ana Cardona, Cheryl Caesar and Stokes.
A similar fundraising event took place in September, and Brown-Binion said over 50 people attended. The event raised $1,500 to support the early literacy and mentoring programs.
“Ruelaine and her group have been incredibly supportive over the years of thinking of ways to wrap their arms around newcomers through poetry, song and providing opportunities for new people to get exposed to who our newcomer community is, and what that looks like,” Brown-Binion said. “That’s been a great opportunity to share some of those stories and how Lansing is really a welcoming space, and has been for decades.”
Stokes said events like this help to provide the community with guidance on how to help with a global issue, but in a local way.
“I think a lot of people see what’s happening in different countries. Most refugees are driven from their countries through catastrophe, economic devastation or natural disasters. Often, we want to help and we’re not sure how to,” Stokes said. “The RDC is an organization that provides very practical help to refugees, and helps them find their own footing here. It helps them make the transition to being neighbors. We want this event to be beautiful as well as provide support. I hope people will enjoy it.”
Brown-Binion said Lansing has been a welcoming city for decades, and she’s proud of the many diverse populations, including people from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Burma and Bhutan who have found a home here.
“It’s something we should celebrate,” she said.
It’s the volunteers who make events like this possible and continue to push forward the RDC’s mission.
“One of our biggest program areas is volunteers,” Brown-Binion said. “They contribute significantly to our work and allow us to provide one-on-one support. Feedback we’ve heard over and over from our volunteers is that they thought they’d have to leave the country to contribute to global efforts, but they can do that right here. They’re able to get a global perspective of people who have settled here.”
Free refreshments are provided and free parking is available at the event. Haslett Community Church is located at 1427 Haslett Road, Haslett.