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Literacy Center shares insight on immigrant, refugee experience

Michigan has welcomed the fourth-most refugees of any state over the last decade
Refugee Experience
Posted at 6:47 PM, Apr 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-22 00:46:48-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Patrick Lyoya, the man shot and killed by a Grand Rapids police officer, came to West Michigan with his family from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It's a move many others have made, and the transition can be difficult.

Ahead of his funeral Friday, FOX 17 got a better idea of the challenges immigrants and refugees can face when adjusting to a new culture.

“They’ve been through a lot in their displacement," said Wendy Falb, executive director at Literacy Center of West Michigan. "They’ve been in refugee camps. They come here and they’ve never seen snow. It’s a tough experience, but they bring so much resiliency, joy, beautiful families, commitments.”

These refugees and immigrants are different people with shared experiences — growing up in a tough environment, looking for a new home to feel safe.

For many of them, that new home is Michigan.

Over the last decade, Michigan has welcomed the fourth-most refugees of any state. However, when one problem is solved, another can appear.

Falb said, “We surveyed several hundred immigrants and refugees from various communities and asked them, ‘What is the barrier for you to experience full belonging in West Michigan?’ The number one answer that came back was English language literacy, the language barrier.”

The Literacy Center in West Michigan aims to break that barrier.

Falb said the organization works with about 800 people, native and non-native speakers, who want to improve their literacy.

“It is a pretty profound barrier to engage and to bring your full potential and for your children to feel belonging. It’s huge," Falb said. "It’s really huge.”

She said West Michigan does a great job of welcoming refugees but there's still much more work left to do.

Falb said it all starts with listening.

“You think people understand everything that’s going on; there’s just such a huge amount to take in," said Falb. "Language is a key part to opening up all that knowledge on how we navigate this new culture, this new community."

The Literacy Center plays its role in helping people adjust. Part of their work is inviting groups to come in and train their clients on how to act in certain situations, like if they're pulled over by police, or immigration comes to their door.

However, they can't strengthen the social fabric of the community alone.

“If you come from a place of trauma, you experience a lot of alienation," said Falb. "Then, if you come to a new country, you experience alienation. A new culture. If you don’t know the language, you experience a lot of alienation. If you can be that one person that has an open mind, an open heart and a lot of curiosity, it will make a difference.”

Falb said the Literacy Center is the largest community-based organization that focuses on adult education in the state, and one of the largest in the country. Still, they are always in search of volunteers. If you're interested in learning more or helping out, visit

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