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Traverse City family welcomes African child refugee

David Cassleman

The past few weeks have been challenging ones for a new refugee program in northern Michigan. The plan is to resettle up to 15 refugee children with foster families in the Traverse City area this year.  

President Trump has complicated things with his executive order on immigration and refugees.

But with the order temporarily halted, the program in Traverse City is welcoming its first refugee on Wednesday — a teenage girl from Africa. 


The Augensteins


It has been a stressful month for the Augensteins. The Traverse City family has been expecting to bring home a new family member — a foster daughter — since December.


The teenage girl is from Africa, and a refugee, who the Augensteins have never met.


Kimberly Augenstein, a mother of three, says she has been concerned about the girl’s safety overseas.


“I’m not usually on my phone,” Augenstein says. “I’m usually telling my kids they’re not supposed to be on their phone all day. But when we were waiting for a ruling that would affect whether or not this child came now or in the summer or never, boy, I was on my phone all the time.”


After the executive order came out, Augenstein was initially told that her foster daughter might not arrive until June.


Kimberly’s 16 year old daughter, Shalini, says it was a scary and disappointing time.


She says she heard a lot of talk about the executive order at school.


“It was just disappointing hearing people say ‘oh, yeah I believe that they shouldn’t come or be able to come,’ while our family is trying to expect a person. I feel like they don’t understand," Shalini Augenstein says.


The Augensteins waited to hear whether the resettlement that had originally been scheduled for this month was still on.


And last Thursday, they heard good news. They learned in an email that their foster daughter had been cleared with the U.S. Department of State and would fly in on Wednesday. 


Program expands to Traverse City


The Augensteins are fostering through a program run by Bethany Christian Services. The group has been resettling refugee kids in foster homes for decades, but hadn’t been doing it in northern Michigan.


Last year, Bethany expanded the program to its Traverse City office.


Dona Abbott, director of Bethany’s refugee and immigrant programs, says children who qualify for the program are either separated from their parents or orphans.  


“You have children who are unprotected, who don’t know how to find medical care when they need medical care if it is at all available,” Abbott says. “They’re truly just surviving on their own, and that is often after witnessing horrible tragedies — deaths of family members, long journeys.”


Abbott says these children are generally teenagers. She says there are currently more than 250 refugee kids in foster care in Michigan.


The plan in northern Michigan was to bring in as many as 15 this year, but that number could shrink.


Abbott says one part of the executive order that is still in effect is the part that reduces the total number of refugees accepted into the U.S. this year from 110,000 to 50,000.   


“How children may be prioritized in that 50,000, we have yet to hear from the Department of State,” Abbott says.


Augensteins prepare for day one


A handful of families are involved in the Traverse City refugee program. They are each required to get licensed as foster parents and then to take some additional training classes.


Kimberly Augenstein will be the first to take home a child. She says fostering refugees is a good way to take care of them. 


“Kids grow best in families, and that’s the way to get an education and to understand a new culture and a new community,” Augenstein says.


The Augensteins have been preparing for this day since December. They’ve spent time doing research on the cultural background of their new family member.


There have also been more practical considerations, like rearranging bedrooms.


“She’s going to be sharing a bedroom with me,” Shalini Augenstein says. “So it’s going to be nice to have another person in my room again. I was excited when I didn’t have to share a room but I kind of miss having that sister in my room because I would have someone to talk to.”


One of the most immediate challenges will be language, because as far as they know their arrival speaks no English.


Kimberly Augenstein says the closest interpreter is in Grand Rapids.


“So I’m told we will have a phone call at the airport with an interpreter on the other end of the phone,” Augenstein says. “We’ll have an interpreter the next morning available by phone. And beyond that, we’re not sure."


What they do know is that they’ll be at the airport holding a welcome sign.


Kimberly Augenstein says she expects to prepare her foster daughter a simple meal, let her take a shower and then let her sleep.


She says she will have been traveling for more than 24 hours.