Group aims to help Syrian refugees

More support needed to address humanitarian crisis

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published May 27, 2016


MADISON HEIGHTS — The ongoing civil war in Syria has displaced millions of people who want nothing more than to peacefully coexist with their fellow man. But life is tough starting over from scratch in a new country with a different language and culture. That’s the situation many refugees find themselves in as they seek a better life for their families.

There is no overstating the magnitude of the crisis. According to Mercy Corps, more than 4.7 million Syrian refugees are now in neighboring countries. In Lebanon to the west, one in five people is a Syrian refugee. In Jordan to the south, it’s one in 13. Nearly 1 million have applied for asylum in Europe, and more than 13.5 million people are still in need of assistance inside Syria. In all, more than 11 million people have either been killed or forced to flee their homes — that’s half of the country’s pre-war population. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has called it “the biggest refugee and displacement crisis of our time.” 

Michigan alone has received nearly 400 refugees since the start of 2015, with the vast majority of them settling in southeast Michigan communities such as Madison Heights. Many of them risk life and limb getting here, driven by the hope that other Syrians in town will give them a sense of community and support once they arrive.

Through it all, the Syrian American Rescue Network (SARN) has been trying to help them find their footing in this new land. And their needs are many, said Patrick McLean, a SARN board member and director of the Gerald Ford Institute for Leadership in Public Policy and Service at Albion College. 

“We do everything we can to fill those needs, which range from emotional and physical health, to education, to finding a place to live, to transportation, to finding furniture and household necessities — the very basics, since refugees often arrive with little more than the clothing on their backs,” McLean said. “In most cases, they come with some assistance because of their refugee designation through the federal government. But our goal is to get them as self-sufficient as possible.”

Few people work harder than the average refugee, he added. It’s not uncommon to come across a refugee who was highly trained and qualified in their homeland — a doctor, for instance — but here in America they have to start over as they get recertified, learn the new language and more. 

“Refugees tend to be highly motivated,” McLean said. “Many of the ones we work with are highly skilled, but they need language training and their credentials are not automatically transferable. So we work with them to start over. That’s a challenge handled on a case-by-case basis. A further challenge with Syrian refugees is they may not have the paperwork, and there’s no way to go back to Syria to get evidence of the credential they earned.”

The fact that they’re willing to move here despite the hardships just underscores how dire the situation is back in their home country, he said.

“Personal safety is the main reason they come here,” McLean said. “They don’t feel safe, and they aren’t safe in their homes or going out from their homes (in Syria). They live in cities that have been utterly devastated, and they live with the constant threat of having bombs dropped on them, bombs the regime has used that kill people indiscriminately. At some point, one realizes they’re not safe in their homes, and they’re willing to risk it all to find safety for their families.”

But SARN can’t help the refugees alone. It needs the help of people in the community to provide the resources the refugees need. These can range from monetary donations to physical goods.

On May 21, SARN held a fundraiser at the Balkan American Community Center in Troy, attended by nearly 400 people. Among them was Madison Heights City Councilman David Soltis, who spearheaded the Multicultural Relations Advisory Board in Madison Heights. He has been trying to better understand the needs of the city’s growing refugee population.

“What’s happening in Syria is the humanitarian crisis of our lifetime so far, and it’s not being taken as seriously and empathetically as it should be,” Soltis said. “There is misinformation out there, and bigotry and stereotypes that scare people and prey upon their fears. It happened with the Italians, Irish and other Eastern European people when they came over back in the day, and it happens now (with Middle Eastern immigrants).”

The focus, he said, should be on helping one’s fellow man.

“We need to talk to these refugees and find out what they need,” Soltis said. “We need to find out what we can do to help them through some difficult times. I feel like our Multicultural Relations Advisory Board has an incredible opportunity to reach out and do just that.”

SARN believes that increased awareness is part of the answer.

“I think it starts with empathy,” McLean said. “Hopefully, people will educate themselves and realize where these refugees have come from and what they’ve faced. And hopefully, people will open up their hearts and minds, and greet these refugees and welcome them into the community.” 

Follow SARN on Facebook at The group to join for furniture and donations is You can also donate items on Amazon: For more information about SARN, visit