GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — As communities across the United States prepare to welcome thousands of Afghan refugees, a woman who resettled in West Michigan more than 20 years ago, is hoping it’s done with compassion.
In 1997, Blanka van Raalte, who now lives in Boston, immigrated as a refugee to Grand Rapids. Her family was fleeing a civil war in Bosnia.
“It was a division among three religions,” said van Raalte. “I came from a mixed marriage… My father had decided it was best and safest for our family to leave our home.”
Pictures at the time show van Raalte’s family’s belongings packed into just a few suitcases.
“Going from a normal life, living your life, going to school, learning, parents going to work, to waking up one day and all of a sudden your whole world was upside down, your main focus is survival,” said van Raalte. “Finding food for your families or clothing or shelter, whatever it may be.”
According to van Raalte, it took about nine months of interviews, classes, and appointments to get her family to their new city. She says the now defunct Catholic Human Development Outreach helped them resettle. The organization provided housing, workforce development, and other needs that allowed the family to become self sufficient within their first few months.
“All of a sudden we went from a place where we feared for our life to a place where we knew were safe,” said van Raalte. “While at the same time feeling that sadness of having to leave home and family behind as well as confusion around what was going to happen next.”
As the ensuing refugee crisis from the U.S.’s withdrawal from Afghanistan takes place, van Raalte says she can’t help but sympathize for what they are likely experiencing. She hopes those fleeing find safety, peace and compassion over the following days and weeks.
“Everybody’s experience is so unique, so different, but I do know that they’re going through a lot of trauma,” said van Raalte. “They have to leave everything behind. They’re also coming from a different culture, so there’s going to be some culture shock for them. There’s going to be some things they’re not going to expect, they’re not going to know.”
Samaritas announced on Friday it expects 350 Afghan refugees to arrive as early as next week in Grand Rapids and Detroit.
Van Raalte says she is grateful for the opportunity provided to her family and can’t envision otherwise. She wants her story to inspire people to help the refugees in their communities over the coming months.
“They’re [her parents, who still live in Grand Rapids] getting to watch their children and their grandchildren succeed and go to college here and get the opportunities that we otherwise wouldn’t have had,” said van Raalte. “We own a home, we’re well established in our communities as well, and I just — like I said — I can’t imagine where I would’ve been.”
To learn how to help Afghan refugees, click here.