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‘Give me your tired, your poor…’
The famous poem on the Statue of Liberty is a West Michigan truth, from the ‘Lost Boys’ of Sudan to Katrina evacuees.

By Angela Klinske
Photography by Johnny Quirin

For more than 200 young Sudanese refugees — called the “Lost Boys” by aid organizations — a West Michigan snowstorm six years ago became a symbolic start on a life free from torture and starvation.

Shortly before the Lost Boys began arriving two days before Christmas of 2000, Grand Rapids dental technician David Bowman was forced to retire due to poor health. He knew he needed something to fill his time, and when he heard about the “boys” situation, he contacted Bethany Christian Services, the local refugee placement agency, and signed up to sponsor five refugees.

Bowman and other volunteer “foster parents,” armed with hugs and winter coats, greeted the tall teenage boys (and a few girls) at Gerald R. Ford International Airport. The Sudanese arrived with nothing more than the shirts on their backs (provided by the United Nations), having survived military ambushes, crocodile-infested waters, and a 1,000-mile exodus from Southern Sudan to Ethiopia.

Little did Bowman know that his act of generosity would lead to a new career, that he would form a foundation to build a hospital in Sudan and would spend hour after hour fundraising — and traveling between Grand Rapids and Africa.

Bowman has gone further — literally and figuratively — than most. But his story is not that unusual, at least not in West Michigan. When it comes to philanthropy, this area has deep pockets … and open doors for those seeking safety and shelter. For philanthropy is more than money: Miriam-Webster defines it as “goodwill to fellowmen, especially active effort to promote human welfare.”

In the past three years alone, nearly 1,000 refugees have made West Michigan their home — a place to flee persecution, civil war, natural disaster and political unrest. Of the 4,000 Lost Boys who came to the U.S., 278 eventually were taken in by West Michigan, more than anywhere else. Refugees from Vietnam, Russia, Germany, Romania, Bosnia, Ethiopia and Burma have found asylum here — as have evacuees from Hurricane Katrina.

Here are the stories of a few of the local families who opened their doors to become interracial, intercultural, international.

“ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …”
David and Nancy Bowman
David Bowman spent hours every day mentoring five boys at their home, teaching them the most basic of American skills: how to turn on a light switch, how to turn off a water faucet, how to open a can of food. They had never used a flush toilet, never ridden on an escalator, never tasted ice cream, never seen snow.

 
At their request, Bowman paid for their Sudanese bishop to visit Grand Rapids. As he and the bishop had dinner one evening, the bishop mentioned he had a toothache. The bishop, who was in his 30s, told Bowman he had never been to a dentist — that in the Sudan, he cleaned his teeth with a twig from a tree.

When Bowman inquired about the availability of doctors, the bishop explained that beyond prayer, there was little they could do for the sick.

“ Sometimes, God does a miracle,” said the bishop.

A miracle indeed. Heart disease and diabetes haven’t stopped Bowman from getting a hospital under construction in Sudan. He started a nonprofit organization, Partners in Compassionate Care, which is building the 50-bed teaching hospital in memory of the thousands of children who died in the mass exodus.
The hospital is slated to open next spring, as soon as the other half of the capital campaign — roughly $250,000 — is raised.

“ My life has been greatly enriched through bringing hope and healing,” Bowman said.

“ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore …”
Hilda and Ron Lantz
As a young home-schooling mom with barely enough time to care for her own family, Hilda Lantz of Kentwood thought herself an unlikely candidate to sponsor refugees.

But when she and her husband, Ron, heard about the Lost Boys through a friend, they knew they had to get involved.

“ It was an emergency situation,” said Hilda. “If we didn’t get involved, they could have died or been hospitalized.”

The refugees suffered from severe malnutrition; they had to have holes added to their belts in order to hold up their pants.

They did not recognize canned food or know how to use an oven.

The Lantzes and others in the community formed Friends of Christ and organized volunteers to greet the Sudanese at the airport and coordinate the high volume of donations. Clothes, furniture, computers, bikes and household items came in so quickly that a member of their church donated necessary warehouse space.

“ It was far bigger than we were,” Lantz said of the community outpouring. “We wouldn’t ask anyone — we just asked God to touch hearts. People stepped forward to meet needs.”

Since their arrival, most of the refugees have taken Christian names, a baptism of sorts into their new lives. They have enrolled in school, joined churches and obtained jobs. Now, six years later, many have graduated from college and gained U.S. citizenship.

“ From a worldly standpoint, they should fail: They had no parents, no structure,” Lantz said. “But they haven’t failed, and I think that’s a testament to them.”

“ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me …”
Helen and James Lehman
When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast last year, thousands of families scattered, displaced from homes. Some of those families “landed” in Grand Rapids.

 
Sarah Early, 22, arrived in Grand Rapids with her family on Sept. 6, 2005, on a bus that transported them from a shelter in Baton Rouge, La. With her were her son, KorQuan, now 4, her mother, an aunt and an 18-year-old cousin. Sarah gave birth to son Durrell two months after their arrival in Grand Rapids. The Early family had lived in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood made up mostly of working-class African Americans that was inundated by the flooding.

James and Helen Lehman invited Sarah’s family to stay with them at their Cannon Township farm. It became a time for northern whites and southern blacks to learn about each others’ culture.
“ We had okra for the first time,” laughed Helen.

The Earlys, who had only lived in an urban setting, experienced rural life for the first time — on a farm that included pigs, chickens and a pond.

“ It was so beautiful ... an area where my child could run free,” said Early.

The Lehmans’ friends, family, neighbors and church extended hospitality and support with food, clothing, baby items, furniture and housewares for an apartment. The United Methodist Church stepped in to pay bills until funding came in from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Salvation Army helped Sarah find an apartment.

“ People came with gift cards. One woman met me at her storage unit and told me to take what I wanted,” said Lehman. “Everyone was looking for something tangible to do to heal the national wound.”

The Early family has settled in Grand Rapids and plans to stay here. Sarah is enrolled at Grand Rapids Community College, where she’s working toward an accounting degree.

“ I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Tony and Marti Mehari
During the next year, hundreds of Burmese children are expected to hit American soil, escaping religious persecution from a dictatorial government. Bethany Christian Services is seeking homes for the 50 children expected to arrive in Grand Rapids.

So far, only a few have been allowed to enter the country. Two 18-year-old young men, Lian Thang and Kee Hung, live with Tony and Marti Mehari of Grand Rapids.

Tony Mehari himself is an immigrant, coming to America in 1979 on a business visa to escape political unrest in Ethiopia. He met Marti, married and settled in Grand Rapids. They have four of their own children, and also have fostered several refugee children, from Ethiopia, Sudan, and now Burma.
Lian Thang and Kee Hung arrived in America just days before their 18th birthdays. Lian’s father was killed by the army in Burma; Lian escaped to India.

Lian has been in Grand Rapids since last December, with little contact with his family. A phone call home to his mother requires months of planning. First, he has to call a neighboring village that has a phone. Someone from that village travels to his mother’s village to let her know her son will be calling on a specified date. She then packs food and walks for three days to the neighboring village.
Their phone call is bittersweet.

“ She cries most of time,” Lian said in broken English.

Lian, who has only a fifth-grade education, is currently enrolled at Godwin Learning Center. Someday, he’d like to attend college and study automotive engineering. Kee Hung also attends Godwin Learning Center, and dreams of being a lawyer.

Between school and adjusting to American life, Lian and Kee Hung play soccer — a sport that dissolves the language barrier between them and local teens, including the Mehari’s 17-year-old son, Daniel. They go to church with the Mehari family at New Life Christian Fellowship in Grand Rapids, where they sing some of the same hymns they learned in Burma.

“ I think,” said Kee Hung, “I will stay here forever.” GR

   
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