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
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
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,
“ 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Their phone call is bittersweet.
She cries most of time,” Lian said in broken
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