Thrive Blog

17 October 2016

Misinformation about the Syrian crisis permeates news feeds, radio waves, and political speeches. The origin of the Syrian conflict and the process of coming to America as a refugee have been glossed over in this election season, but this post will explore those issues and misinformation circulating about the individuals coming from Syria.

Syria is a small country in the neighborhood of Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. Until recently, it was ruled by the Assad family, but tensions between the Assad regime and Syrian citizens escalated to the breaking point in 2011.

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The problems began in 2011. In March of that year, several teenagers didn’t come home from school one evening. They had been arrested by the government for graffiti that incited revolution. Citizens organized protests, demanding that the teens be released. There were rumors that these children were being tortured by officials. After several days of protests, government soldiers shot at those gathered in the city of Deraa in Southern Syria. Several protesters were killed. This event incited protesters all over the country to protest the Assad regime.

So it began. There were more shootings. Rebel groups organized in protest of the Assad regime. Russia began to fund Assad’s army, and the US supported the pro-democracy rebel groups. Soon the situation in Syria was being called a civil war.

The fighting has been especially heinous because war crimes have been committed by both the rebel groups and the Assad regime. The war is partly against citizens— a strategy the Asad regime has used which includes cutting off access to food, water, and medical supplies to civilian areas. Bombings occur routinely in populated areas.

In the Syrian suburbs of Damascus in August 2013, rockets packed with the chemical sarin, a nerve agent, were released into the streets. Hundreds of people were killed. Facing US military intervention, Assad was forced to destroy the rest of Syria’s chemical weapons store. However, documented incidents of chlorine gas used in warfare continue throughout 2014. The use of chemical weapons is a serious war crime.

With the government unhinged and battling for control and confused citizens attempting to organize rebel groups, a power vacuum formed. ISIS and other terrorist groups moved in, compounding the chaos. Rebel groups were threatening, the government was threatening, and terror groups threatened on all sides as well.

A woman and her her child walk through the ruined border town of Kobane. Image credit:

Many of us have seen the footage of the bombed buildings, the doctors operating in rooms stained with blood, the little boy, Omran, in the ambulance.

These images on our computer screens are the reality for the people in Syria. Syrian refugees are so desperate to get away from the conflict that we’ve seen them pack into boats and set sail themselves across the Mediterranean. An estimated 2,500 Syrians have drowned on the journey.

The political controversy surrounding Syrian refugees boils down to the security risk of allowing citizens of a country at war with ISIS through our borders… but the misinformation about how refugees arrive here is rampant. Refugees do not just waltz through our borders. This is especially true of Syrian refugees, who face the strictest vetting process of all nations.

First, the refugees arrive in a refugee camp. From there, aid workers make referrals to countries about specific refugees. Syrian refugees referred to the US go through a lengthy interview process with professionals at the Department of Homeland Security who are specifically trained to assess risk. They also participate in mental health screenings, physical health assessments, and more.

To illustrate how tough the vetting process is, here are some statistics. At one point, there were 23,092 Syrian refugees referred to the US relocation program. Just 7,014 of them passed initial screening to start the interviewing process. After the interviews and further screening, only 2,034 actually arrived here and been resettled.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Syrian vetting process takes an average of 18-24 months.

Once they arrive, however, they work closely with non-profit groups like Bethany or Samaritas Ministries. They are not just set loose: these groups help them put down roots in a place and begin a new life here. Those who were doctors before might have to work factory jobs. The lawyers and professionals might find themselves in slaughterhouses, packing meat to pay rent. It is not an easy process to resettle, learn a foreign language, and have to go back to school to get US credentials to be employed in skilled work.

This process is a well-documented procedure. However, in this crazy election season, there has been an explosion of misunderstandings about how the refugee system works.

We want to clarify the following points:

Contrary to what we’ve heard in the Presidential campaign, most Syrian refugees are not men. Women and children younger than 14 make up 70 percent of Syrian refugees.

The screening process for refugees is effective and successful. The Syrian man who participated in the Paris attacks went through a very different screening process to get through the French border, and he may have pretended to be a refugee. US vetting is much tougher, and neither political candidate is advocating for less vetting. Both candidates argue that careful interviewing, risk assessment, and screenings are vital parts of the Syrian refugee program in the US.

This is a humanitarian crisis. There are lives at stake if the US does not step up to do its part in resettling these refugees.

On Nov. 14, 2015, Donald Trump claimed that Barack Obama was accepting 250,000 Syrian refugees into the US. Ben Carson claimed the number was 100,000, and Carly Fiorina said it was 100,000. Those numbers are wrong: in recent years the US resettled 70,000 refugees from all countries, not just Syria. Syrian refugees made up just 10,000 of these last year. In addition, the President does not have the final say in the number of allowed refugees: he or she must collaborate that number with Congress.

As this article points out, refugees are the victims, not the perpetrators, of persecution and terror.

Not a single American has been killed in an attack by a refugee. The Boston bombers were not refugees. The San Bernadino shooters were not refugees. The vetting process that refugees go through makes them one of the safest segments of our population. After all, US-born citizens don’t go through vetting to ensure that they are mentally healthy, will contribute to society, and don’t have a record of questionable behavior.

In this season of misinformation and fear, let us work to correct the misunderstandings of our culture and our world. Syrian refugees have had their homes and livelihoods destroyed by war. We have a duty to welcome them with respect and compassion.


By Patricia Schlutt

23 September, 2016


According to a report by The New York Times, the wars raging in the Congo are the deadliest on earth since World War II. In fact, the Second Congolese War (the one being fought right now) is also known as “Africa’s World War” because most of Africa is involved in the conflict. Trying to trace the war to its source reveals a web of knotted alliances, half-resolved conflicts, cultural tensions, racial rivalries. The unfinished story of the Rwandan genocide drags on in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where the perpetrators of the genocide fled the Rwandan government to recover and reestablish military strength. The Rwandan government followed these warlords into the DRC in 1998 to prevent their return to power. War broke out between these two groups, but they were not the only ones in conflict. The UN estimates that 25 different militias have organized across the DRC. Some organized for power, others for land, for money, to protect the people of an area, guard political interests, or for access to localized resources. The most infamous of these militias is the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by warlord Joseph Kony, who is known for using child soldiers.


Ultimately, the Second Congolese War is a result of a weak government in the DRC. It has become a country where rebel factions go to regroup. The Congolese government’s army is often criticized for being ineffective. The New York Times reports that Congolese soldiers often go without pay because of government corruption. Although the Congo is a rich area, its diamonds and rich farmland have served to draw power-hungry groups to the area instead of empowering native Congolese.


This map shows areas of the DRC where the UK has issued travel warnings because of conflict. Image Credit:


An article by the BBC estimates that the effects of war have claimed the lives of five million people: for perspective, that’s more than half the population of the state of Michigan. Starvation and disease were the main culprits. Congolese women are especially vulnerable. A human rights activist recently called the Congo “the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman.” The UN has named it “the rape capital of the world.” A 2011 study found that 48 women were raped every hour in the DRC. Rape and sexual violence are routinely used as a dehumanizing war tactic. Genocidal rape is a terrible weapon: it creates terror and forces families to relocate, and it instills shame and a fear of returning to one’s home.


As the conflicts drag on, the DRC is eroded and distorted by war. An enormous U.N. peacekeeping presence is doing little to alleviate the military factions and rebel militias festering there. Families who flee from the fighting end up in refugee camps like the one pictured below, where rows of tents form brick-like rows. Laundry waves tiredly in the wind. The countryside stretches forever beyond the hills of Rwanda and Burundi, and somewhere beyond the camp, the war goes on.

Human cost … a Congolese boy at the Mugunga refugee camp on the outskirts of Goma in south-east Congo.
A photo of the Mugunga Refugee Camp for Congolese Refugees. Image credit: 


After years of waiting in refugee camps, refugees arrive in their settlement countries. Yet the obstacles they encounter there are also perilous. Beginning from scratch in a new country, surrounded by a foreign language, an unfamiliar school system, and unexpected bills is a frightening reality. Imagine navigating employment in a brand-new language, heeding the small print in an indecipherable housing lease, scraping together change for the bus or working out how to get to the store without a car.


This is the journey of Congolese refugees. The exodus of Congolese out of their home country is not likely to end soon. Thousands of people have fled the DRC and are waiting in refugee camps in neighboring countries for a loan that will cover a one-way plane ticket. America, Germany, Switzerland and other countries are preparing to receive them. When they arrive, these refugees will have a chance to begin again.


The difficulties are great, but hope for a new life is greater.



Written by Patricia Schlutt


August 19, 2016

gregOur volunteer Greg first heard about Thrive at last year’s Eastown Streetfair. He took a picture with our “Refugees Welcome” sign and started following us on Facebook. Thrive stayed in the back of Greg’s mind for a few months until he heard that Thrive was looking for new volunteers, and so he decided to start volunteering with us!

Greg started out as a part of our Cultural Broker program, which works with clients one-on-one. He helped a middle school boy by tutoring him in math and helped the boy’s family with their transportation needs and  with parent-teacher conferences. He will soon start to serve as a Cultural Broker for a new client from Iraq. Lately, Greg has also played a huge role in getting our citizenship and ESL classes off the ground at our Refugee Support Center.

One of the things Greg enjoys about volunteering with Thrive is the opportunity to interact with other cultures and learn from the refugees he’s working with. He says, “I always find myself very impressed with our clients’ ability to work hard at their jobs, raise a family, learn English, and navigate the system’s path to citizenship, all while laughing joyfully along the way!”

We asked Greg why he thinks working with refugees is important, and he said, “I believe that to leave your home country because of persecution, war, or natural disaster and seek a better life abroad is a basic human right, one that is not recognized to the same degree as other basic human rights.” Greg sees raising awareness about these issues and working with the refugee community, a community that is so committed creating a better life, as important and rewarding work.

Written by Katie Ulrich

Want to learn more about how you can volunteer with Thrive? Check out our Volunteer page!

August 3, 2016

“According to the Constitution, some powers belong to the states. What is one power of the states?”

“Why did the colonists fight the British?”

“What is the rule of law?”

“What is the most important right granted to United States citizens?”

If you were to stop by Thrive’s Refugee Support Center sometime in the past couple weeks, these are the kinds of questions you would hear us talking about. While it might sound like we’re getting ready for a high school history test, we are actually helping some of our clients prepare for their citizenship tests.


Studying for the civics test with some of our Burmese clients in our Refugee Support Center

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Putting together a puzzle with the kids so their parents can study for their citizenship test!

Refugees can apply for citizenship after they’ve lived in the US for 5 years. It is important that they apply before they reach 7 years in the US, or they could risk losing benefits such as Social Security, Disability, and Food Assistance.

To become a US citizen, each applicant must fill out an intensive 20-page application and go to a biometrics appointment. Once they are approved, they will receive a letter in the mail giving them a date for their citizenship test.

The most important and difficult part of the citizenship test is the civics test, which tests applicants on their knowledge of the US. This test includes the history of the United States, from colonization to the Cold War. It also includes information on the American government system, including things like the branches of government, current leaders such as senators and governors, the different parts of the Constitution, and the rights of a US citizen.

There are 100 possible questions that can appear on the civics test. Each applicant will be asked 10 questions that they must verbally respond to. Out of those 10, they must get 6 questions correct to pass the test. In addition to the civics test, there are reading and writing portions of the citizenship test to determine that the applicant has a good understanding of English.

The citizenship test can be very difficult for those who grew up outside of the US, but it is still a challenge to who have grown up here. In fact, a study at Xavier University found that only 65% of native-born Americans could pass the citizenship test.

At Thrive, we hope to help our clients prepare for their citizenship tests by explaining the history and government of the US. We host citizenship classes every Wednesday, as well as provide continued support for citizenship throughout the week, to help our clients become US citizens.

Written by Katie Ulrich

July 22, 2016

Burmese Refugees

Last year, the US accepted over 18,000 refugees from Burma, meaning that Burmese refugees make up over 25% of refugees accepted to the United States in 2015. Burma has had one of the world’s longest running civil wars, which has created one of the world’s most prolonged refugee crises. While a large portion of the refugees in the US are from Burma, many people are unaware of the conflict that has led to the vast number of refugees.

Burma, also known as Myanmar, is a small country in Southeast Asia with a population of 50 million. With over 100 different ethnic groups, Burma is a country known for its ethnic diversity.


Image credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Burma was a British colony until 1948, when the nation received its independence. Initially, Burma was led by a parliamentary government, but in 1962, the Myanmar Armed Forces enacted a coup d’état and replaced the government with a military dictatorship. The government of Burma was converted to socialism, and the Burmese Socialist Program Party became the only legal political organization. During this time, the economy worsened, political opponents were detained, and human rights abuses were prevalent, especially among ethnic minority groups.

Years of economic hardship and authoritarian rule continued until an uprising began on August 8, 1988 (known as the 8888 uprising). Burmese citizens began the uprising to stand up against the military regime and call for democracy. During the month-long uprising, over 3,000 people died, many at the hand of the military regime.

After this uprising, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) was set up to rule the country, but this was mainly a continuation of the same military leadership that had already ruled Burma. The state set up an election so the people could choose their next leader. Although the National League for Democracy won 80% of the vote, the SLORC ignored the results and stayed in power. Nearly 30 years later, that same political party holds power in Burma (today they are known as the State Peace and Development Council).

Burma’s government has been accused of numerous human rights violations against its people, such as burning down villages, planting landmines, confiscating its people’s land, using its children as child soldiers, forcing its people to work as slave labor, and practicing “ethnic cleansing” by raping and murdering Karen women (Karen is one of Burma’s many ethnic groups).

In addition to the human rights abuses, certain groups in Burma are targeted by the government. Students, intellectuals, elected politicians, and those in support of democracy are among those who have experienced persecution, and many of them have been forced to flee the country for their safety. Those fleeing Burma often go to Thailand or Bangladesh, where some have lived in refugee camps for over 2 decades.

Although these circumstances in Burma might seem like a thing of the past, unrest continues to this day. In recent years, peace agreements have been in the works, but violence between the government and other groups is still ongoing. The internal conflict in Burma, which has lasted almost 70 years, has led to thousands of people seeking safety outside of Burma. The ongoing authoritarian rule, human rights violations, and persecution in Burma has created one of the world’s largest refugee crises and forced thousands from their homes.

Written by Katie Ulrich

July 13, 2016

Refugee Resettlement

In 2016, the US plans to accept 85,000 refugees from around the world. But before a refugee can come and live in the US, they must go through the process of resettlement. Resettlement is the relocation of refugees to a new country where they can have permanent residence.

Before refugees are accepted to be resettled, they will have a series of interviews with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), the United States RSC (Resettlement Support Center), and the DHS (Department of Homeland Security). The interview process is incredibly thorough and detailed, and each applicant is reviewed individually before they are granted acceptance to the US.

Ultimately, the DHS has the final say of whether or not a refugee will be admitted to the United States. Once they are approved, each person goes through a medical screening to determine if they have any medical conditions or diseases that must be treated before arriving in the US.

Refugee Resettlement

Image credit: U.S.Department of Health & Human Services

The application process for resettlement can take months or, in some cases, years. But getting accepted for resettlement in the US is just the beginning for a refugee’s new life in the United States.

Once a refugee is ready to come to the US, they will be assigned to a resettlement agency that will set up their initial transition to the United States. Here in Grand Rapids, Bethany Christian Services and Samaritas (Lutheran Social Services) are the main resettlement agencies working with new refugees.

Resettlement agencies work with refugees in their first 90 days in the country, after which refugees are left to support themselves. In those first three months here, resettlement agencies will help them with basic services such as getting their social security cards, setting up their health benefits or public assistance, and enrolling their children in school.

Resettlement agencies will also set up a housing situation for each family, covering the housing costs for the first 90 days, and will aid family members in finding employment. Many refugees end up working in entry level positions, even for those who had professional careers back in their home countries.

The goal of resettlement agencies is to have refugees become self-sufficient in a matter of months, but this can prove to be challenging. While resettlement agencies do a tremendous job assisting refugees when they first arrive, they often do not have the resources to continue support past their first 90 days in the US.

Thrive has partnered with these resettlement agencies to continue providing support. Our hope is that we can work with refugees after the 90 day resettlement period, whether that is by teaching them English, assisting them with government paperwork, or helping set up medical appointments. Thrive wants to continue the support provided by resettlement agencies in order to help refugees succeed in their new lives here in the US.

Written by Katie Ulrich

July 6, 2016

Last fall, Rebecca was looking for an opportunity to volunteer when she heard about Thrive. At the time, she and her husband were considering moving to Europe. She thought, “If we move, it will be under the best possible circumstances: among English-speakers, to a culture that is fairly familiar, with money and jobs, and yet I still feel a little overwhelmed by the idea. How much more overwhelmed must these refugees feel?”

Rebecca knew that she could serve as a cultural ambassador to new American residents, teaching refugees how to “work America.” “I’ve been doing that my whole life,” she said. “I could help with that!”

Rebecca started by working with a family of 6 from Rwanda through Thrive’s Cultural Broker Program. At first, she mainly helped the father of the family learn English. He spoke both Kinyarwanda and Swahili, making English his 3rd language. One day, Rebecca was helping him translate words from English to Swahili through Google translate when she noticed that the words for “good” and “beautiful” were the same. She asked why that was, to which the father replied, “There is good, and there is very good.” Rebecca remarked, “Some things seem to be the same everywhere!”

Rebecca continues to help the same family by arranging their medical appointments and, since no one in the family drives, she helps get them to those appointments. She also helps the family with any issues that arise, helping them find the needed resources.

“I see the importance of the help I can give them all the time,” Rebecca reflects. “How would they get to all these appointments without help? With limited English skills and little understanding of American bureaucracy (even I get impatient with that sometimes!), how would they navigate some of the paperwork they are sent? I feel honored that they trust me to be part of their lives the way they do. It couldn’t have been easy to trust so much in a total stranger.”

When asked about how she felt her experience volunteering with Thrive has impacted her, Rebecca said she’s had the opportunity to make some new African friends! She also mentioned the resilience she’s seen in the people she works with. “The strength of the refugees I’ve met is beyond imagination.”

Our work at Thrive would not be possible if it weren’t for our volunteers. If you are interested in volunteering with Thrive, check out our Volunteer page to learn more!

Written by Katie Ulrich

June 27, 2016

In the past year, issues surrounding refugees have flooded the news as the number of refugees has grown exponentially. So we wanted to ask, just exactly how big is today’s refugee crisis?

Capture7Capture8Currently in the world, there is a total of 19.5 million refugees and 65.3 million displaced people. These are people who have been forced to leave their home countries because of persecution, war, and violence. Whether it’s due to civil war, genocide, or threats for their beliefs, people must leave behind their home in order to stay safe.

Capture9Every minute, 24 people are forced to leave their homes as a result of conflict and persecution. When these people are forced to leave their homes, they often leave behind most of what they own and are forced to say goodbye to their friends and family.

Capture10 Capture1153% of all refugees come from just 3 countries: Somalia, Afghanistan, and Syria. In Somalia, drought, famine, and ongoing insecurity have forced many people to leave, while the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria have led to people becoming refugees.

Capture6The UN reported that in 2013, the number of forcibly displaced people exceeded 50 million people for the first time since World War 2. The migrant crisis we are seeing today is one of the largest that the world has ever seen.

Written by Katie Ulrich

June 20, 2016

Today June 20, we celebrate World Refugee Day to recognize the millions of refugees around the world. These are courageous men, women, and children who have been forced to leave behind their homes in search of safety. Today we want to honor all the refugees around the world and their bravery.

Today also marks Thrive’s five year anniversary! Five years ago we started with one family from the Congo. Since then we’ve worked with over 150 family members through our Cultural Broker Program, helping them as they make their transition to life here in the United States.

Our vision has always been to help refugees flourish and succeed. It can be incredibly difficult to adapt to a new culture and navigate a new system of services. We hope to come alongside refugees to support them in their transition by giving them access to the services they need. We hope to give refugees the opportunities they need to thrive.

Thrive’s work is unique in that we partner with refugees individually to meet their specific needs. Whether they are looking to learn English, they want to learn how to navigate the Grand Rapids bus system, or they need help with paperwork from the Department of Human Services, we are here to meet their specific needs.

As we reflect on the past five years, we look back on some of Thrive’s big milestones:

  • In 2013, after preparing and assisting our client through the citizenship process, we had our first client become a United States citizen! We are currently in the process of assisting another family in the process for citizenship.
  • We had the opportunity to travel to Washington D.C. in 2013 and meet with legislators to discuss immigration reform.
  • Last year we were able to support our Congolese clients by helping them start their very own worship service. They continue to meet every Sunday at Cornerstone Church in Wyoming.
  • Our most recent milestone has been opening our Refugee Support Center! The center just opened this month, and it will serve as a drop-in center for refugees. They can come in to do things like use a computer or get help with government paperwork. We will also be hosting ESL and Citizenship classes through the center. Our hope is that the Support Center will allow us to serve an even greater population of the refugee community by helping us reach those who are not enrolled in our Cultural Broker Program.

Our work here at Thrive would not be possible without the generous support of our donors and volunteers, so we would like to say thank you to each of you who have been a part of Thrive over the past five years. Here’s to many, many more years to come!

Written by Katie Ulrich

October 6, 2015       

Thrive’s goal for the last five years has been to open a center where refugee can come in and work with volunteers on whatever their needs may be! We would love a place where we could once again host English classes, start up Citizenship classes, help families with DHHS paperwork or understanding their mail, listen to their problems and provide support, and allow the different refugee cultural groups in the community to have a place to use as their own. Once we lost our previous office space in the Spring, we decided it was time to open this center. We have received several substantial grants to help us towards this goal, but need a little over $10,000 more to be able to have the funds to sign the lease on our space. Please consider donating to this cause and support us in moving to a level where we could potentially help thousands of area refugees instead of the 20 or so families a year we are able to assist out of their homes in our Cultural Broker program.

You can donate now through the Donate button on our front page of the website or through our GoFundMe account at Every little bit gets us closer to our goal, so if you are only able to donate $5 or $10, please do what you can!

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