Thrive Blog

November 15, 2017

Funding a nonprofit happens in many ways. Government funding, corporate donors, and individual donors are the main avenues of support. Thrive relies solely on corporate sponsors and individual donors. Thrive does not seek government funding. This may seem like an obvious funding choice, but there are restrictions placed on an organization when government funding is accepted. Here are a few reasons why Raquel Owens, Executive Director of Thrive, thinks it better serves Thrive clients by not accepting government funding:

  • Restrictions on how many cases and how long we can work with them. We have the flexibility and freedom to work with refugees for as long or as little as they would like. We have been working with families for over five years and some for a few months.
  • Our programming isn’t in jeopardy if government funding is decreased or completely cut.
  • Capacity: We don’t have enough staff to assist with the monitoring and sometimes cumbersome paperwork and red tape when we have community members who need immediate assistance

This comes with its challenges, though, because then effort is needed to find ways to fundraise, raise awareness to those who have never heard of Thrive to help cultivate relationships, and then to connect with future volunteers and donors to further growth. This involves time and manpower, which Thrive is hoping to supplement in 2018 with more staff. Raquel’s dream for 2018 is to be able to bring on more support staff such as interpreters and program coordinators, giving more capacity for the role of the executive director to explore funding avenues. 

There are many ways you can be a part of Thrive. First off, you can volunteer your time. Thrive is made up of volunteers. The only way that clients get the attention they need is through our volunteers. We love our volunteers and are so grateful for the time donated.

Only a life lived for others is worth living.

-Albert Einstein

Another way to get involved is to give financially. If your time is limited, but you have the resources to give, we need money to grow. One way to do that is to become a monthly donor and Join Our Neighborhood. We invite you to be a monthly donor and be a part of growing our neighborhood outreach. Our long term goal is to have 80 donors giving $50 a month, but anything helps. We currently have 3 donors that give $50 a month, so we have lots of room for growth!

With the holiday season upon us, why not turn your holiday party into a way to grow Thrive by hosting a Thrive House Party. A representative from Thrive will come to your house and give a short presentation to your guests and ask for a donation at the end. This could be a fun alternative to giving gifts by instead directly your money to Thrive. It could also be a unique way to host a get together, drink a glass of wine and find out what is going on in the refugee community in West Michigan. Many people are unaware of the needs of refugees in our community or how they can get involved.

Thrive is grateful for the commitment of volunteers and donors to the mission at Thrive to assist refugees right where they are at. Whether it is filling out paperwork, being driven to an appointment, or taking an hour to do homework, the needs at Thrive are as diverse as the community. Thanks to all who help make not only refugees lives more enriched, but their own for being a part of something so much bigger than themselves.

Blog written by Susan Saylor.

The world is bursting at the seams with an overwhelming number of refugee crises. To sift through the myriad of issues that combat us each day makes the average person cringe with information overload, often retreating to the world of Netflix to deny reality altogether. The citizens that aren’t informed are the most dangerous ones, though. The refugee issues accost us each day, but it is important to not to disregard a group just because we are feeling fraught with news overload.

The Rohingyas, a Muslim minority group in Myanmar or otherwise known as Burma, are fleeing at a staggering rate to nearby Bangladesh. To get into what the conflict is all about, the country of Myanmar must be looked at first. For one, this country is predominantly Buddhist, with the Rohingya being only one of many minority groups within the country. According to Alan Taylor, of The Atlantic, more than 420,000 people have fled Myanmar since August of this year, with most of them being Rohingya Muslims.

Why the sudden fleeing of Burma by the Rohingyans? In an article written on September 25, 2017 for The Atlantic, Krishnadev Calamur writes that the surge of refugees to Bangladesh is what a UN human-rights chief has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, being undertaken by the Burmese military. Unfortunately, this issue is complex and layered, some seeing it as a necessary way to ward off potential terrorist threats, while others argue it is a human rights issue.

For one, human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi, who is considered the de-facto Burmese leader according to Krishnadev Calamur, has not even spoken up for this group, which further muddles for many what the future holds for Rohingya refugees. Calamur very eloquently sums up how confusing it is:

But where humanitarian groups and Western nations see the world’s most persecuted minority, the government of Burma (also known as Myanmar) and an overwhelming majority of its people see a foreign group with a separatist agenda, fueled by Islam, and funded from overseas. It’s this difference in perception that will make any resolution of the Rohingya issue extremely difficult. (The Atlantic, September 25, 2017)

Yet, at the heart of all this is women and children that are now in a foreign land, trying to survive in refugee camps that are being overrun by an overwhelming amount of humans coming across the Bangladesh borders from Burma. So, regardless of how this issue is viewed by the world, Burmese government or Burmese citizens, real people that often have no say about how they feel about this issue, are pushed out of their homes and forced to flee to a place does not want them and leaves them struggling to survive.

Hopefully this blog gives you a bit of insight into just how complex this refugee issue is, but to also understand that regardless of how it is viewed, many humans are suffering.

Photo by Lena Bell on Unsplash

Blog written by Susan Saylor

The refugee crisis that is happening around the world is overwhelming and often confusing with so much information coming at us each day. With so many different refugee issues happening around the world, it seems daunting often to even try to understand the myriad of humanitarian issues. First off, though, it’s important to understand what defines a refugee and why it is important to have that status.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) website, a refugee can be defined this way:

“Refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution. They are defined and protected in international law, and must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk.” (

Often many countries offer resources to those who have refugee status and there is a security to being able to stay in a country because of this status.

United States has a very rigorous process in order to be considered a refugee. With the current administration, the amount of refugees being allowed is constantly being disputed, but still about 800-900 are coming into the United States each week. Unfortunately, that is just a drop in the bucket considering the millions of refugees worldwide.

A person must first be considered a refugee by the United Nations Refugee Agency before he or she can even apply to the United States. After that, a long vetting process ensues which involves agencies such as the FBI and Homeland Security among others. Once admitted into the United States, refugees are provided with travel money that must eventually be repaid once settled.

The first three months in the states provide the most support for a refugee. When entering the country, a refugee is connected to a refugee resettlement agency. This involves finding a city for the individual or family where they already know someone, or where it would be a good fit for them. They find them a place to stay and help to furnish it. They are also given a stipend for the first three months, but are encouraged to find employment as soon as possible. There are countless other ways that agencies get involved, from helping locate a school for children to connecting families to health resources. This is a daunting process for refugees who often do not speak the language or know the culture.

The complexity of a refugee’s life as a new member of society in the United States is hard to comprehend, but it is important to understand that it is complex and there is no one size fits all of what works. That’s why having organizations like Thrive that work to fill in the gaps that agencies are unable to fill and to be flexible to the different situations. To find out more about what organizations are doing in Michigan and beyond, be sure to check out some of the links below to read more about what is happening.

Sources used for this blog:

Photo by Avik Saha on Unsplash

Blog written by Susan Saylor.

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.

Image credit:

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

citizenship (2)

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

  1. October 29, 2017

    This refugee support program is just great, it is inspiring so many refugees and changing their lives for the better. As leaders that want to lead a community of refugees have better lives, what is your main role in this program?

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