By Emily Annett
I found out about Treetops Collective just by chance. I was surfing job websites for internships related to the field of communications and media, and I happened across a posting looking for a Photojournalism and Storytelling intern at Treetops. When I read the description, it immediately sounded like something I would be interested in—I would be able to connect with individuals in the community, gain experience with a small, start-up non-profit, and be able to utilize creative skills through photography and media management. I've included some of my favorite photos during my time in this post.
While I began my work with Treetops hoping to be able to aid them in their mission of making West Michigan a more welcoming place for refugees, I’ve realized as I near the end of my internship how much the women involved in the organization have shaped the way I view and understand the refugee crisis in America, and have challenged me to think critically about what it really means to love your neighbor as yourself. I am graduating from Calvin College this month, and the fact that thousands of refugees resettle in Michigan was never something I thought much about before this year. I ended up taking a class in social work in the fall, and staff members from Bethany Christian Services visited the class several times to give us some information about the current refugee resettlement process in America. It was then that I realized just how many refugees are in need of resettlement, how long the entire process takes, and how difficult it can be for those who finally are resettled to adjust to a new life. Similarly, speaking with Dana and with several of the women I interviewed helped me to more fully understand the process of discovering how to thrive in a new culture.
One of my favorite experiences working with Treetops has been interviewing Christine Ingabire, a Rwandan woman who fled to the United States following a mass genocide in 1994. Christine’s determination and perseverance are not only a model for others who are beginning their journey to a new country, but for anyone who faces challenges and hardships in their lives.
Christine did not know any English when she first arrived and was faced with the task of raising two young sons in a new environment. However, feeling sorry for herself wasn’t something that she spent a lot of time on. She told me, “Nobody wants to be called a refugee…being a refugee is not a choice. It’s just life circumstances.” During the last twenty years, she went on to raise her sons, pursue a college education, found the Uruyange dance group, and complete an internship with Bethany Christian Services helping other refugees settle into their new homes while finishing up her Bachelor's in Social Work.
The most important thing that I learned throughout my internship was that refugees are just people. I know that that sounds like an extremely simple fact, and it’s something that I always would have agreed with if someone had asked me about it. However, my
mindset changed after having the privilege to work with a few refugee women. The refugee crisis always seemed to be something far-off; a problem that I didn’t really have any way to deal with. Working with Treetops has made me realize that the community of Grand Rapids does in fact play host to a significant amount of organizations and residents that work hard to make sure a refugee’s transition into the U.S. is as seamless as possible, and that the way that society treats them affects them in a very real way.
The refugee crisis is happening now, in this moment, and refugees are not just numbers on the news, but real, tangible, wonderful people. I trust that as the mission of Treetops progresses, more and more people will recognize that these individuals help to reshape our community into one that is even better than it was before.
Philippians 2:3-4 (NIV) tells us, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” I hope that our community will continue to help each other to grow and to thrive, and that it will be one that lifts, supports, encourages, and loves—regardless of the journey it took to get here.