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Home » Discover Rackham » Creating Home, for and with Each Other

Home is more than where the heart is; it’s an environment that fosters safety and belonging. Rackham student, joint Ph.D. candidate in social work and sociocultural anthropology, and 2021 Rackham Public Scholarship Grant recipient Irene Routté is interested in how to support refugees as they create new homes for themselves in the U.S.

“I’m interested in how different neighborhoods are designed, including access to transportation and mobility. I’m interested in how certain areas are resourced to signal a person’s value within that space,” Routté says. 

Creating Home in Grand Rapids

The state of Michigan ranks third in the nation for Congolese resettlement. Selected for its availability of low-wage labor and affordable housing on the southeast side of the city, Grand Rapids is home to over 8,000 refugees from the Congo, the largest contingent in the state. 

“So many people who are resettled here have spent their entire lives—or 10, 20 years—in refugee camps. When people come to Michigan, for many, it is the second or third country that they’ve resettled in,” Routté says. 

Grand Rapids has a large Banyamulenge population—a distinct, ethnolinguistic community from the Congo—and the city has become a national gathering point for Banyamulenge people who previously settled elsewhere in the U.S. as people move to live closer to family and friends.

While federally contracted nonprofits assist refugees with their initial resettlement, this support typically lasts only three months. According to Routté, refugees rely on grassroots, volunteer-powered, refugee-run community organizations to stand in the gap to provide long-term assistance in helping them settle into their new homes and communities. 

“Refugee-run community organizations handle the day-to-day stuff for fellow refugees: transportation, providing translation services for everyday things like mail, and providing cultural and psychosocial support,” Routté says. 

Irene Routtee, a woman with curly hair, standing in a park.

Rackham student Irene Routté is a joint Ph.D. candidate in social work and sociocultural anthropology, and 2021 Rackham Public Scholarship Grant recipient.

Youth-Driven Public Scholarship

In 2021, after conducting interviews for a co-authored paper on refugee-run community organizations, Routté initiated a public scholarship project with the Michigan Banyamulenge Community (MBC), a grassroots mutual aid organization in Grand Rapids run by and for Congolese refugees. 

Routté’s interviews revealed a desire for a youth leadership council within the MBC. As one community leader put it, “I want to have leaders who our other youth can look up to as role models.” 

With assistance from MBC leadership, Routté identified five inaugural youth council members, ages 15 to 24, representing a range of experiences: from a recent college graduate who came to the country when he was 15 as an unaccompanied minor to a teen who’s been in the country for less than a year with her family. 

Together, the group identified their primary focus—education—and created programming for their community to gain a better understanding of pathways to higher education in the U.S.

“We had drop-in Zooms and panel discussions on how to get into college and financial aid, plus tutoring support for youth in high school and middle school,” Routté says. 

The group was planning a big education event for the spring of 2022 when a horrific tragedy befell the community.

A Community Responds

A large group of people sitting in chairs in a church.

Routté supported the youth council in the creation of a three-hour community discussion between city council members, police officials, and refugee community members in the wake of a community tragedy.

On April 4, 2022, Patrick Lyoya—firstborn son to Peter and Dorcas Lyoya, father to two young daughters, member of the Restoration Community Church, and a Congolese refugee—was fatally shot at a traffic stop by then-Grand Rapids police officer Christopher Schurr. Lyoya was 26 years old. Schurr was later charged with second-degree murder in the case and is yet to stand trial.

Speaking through an interpreter at an April 14 news conference about the killing, Lyoya’s mother said, “I thought that we came to a safe land, a haven, a safe place. And I start thinking now, I’m surprised and astonished to see that my friend—it is here that my son has been killed with bullets.” 

After processing the initial shock with the youth council, Routté secured an extension of her grant funding to support the youth council in a vital programmatic pivot towards a youth-led event that brought together city council members, police officials, and refugee community members for a conversation on public safety. 

With approximately 150 people in attendance, the youth council facilitated and translated a difficult and necessary three-hour community discussion. The council also curated an exhibition of photos of Congolese life to help people not from the refugee community gain a better understanding of it. 

“There were so many elders at the event,” Routté reflects. “They spoke of their experiences of policing in the Congo and saying, ‘We thought we were safe here. How do we make sure we’re safe?’” 

Routté remembers the police chief as being very affected by the event: “He said, ‘I’m giving you my word that we’re going to do better.’”

Since the event, the Grand Rapids Police Department has been working with Welcome Plan, a city office specifically focused on community outreach and listening sessions with immigrant and refugee communities. 

For Routté, hope for change comes from the Banyamulenge community itself. One of the youth council members recently started his own nonprofit, the Michigan Transportation Center for Immigrants and Refugees, to make sure that newcomers to the state can get driver’s licenses and have safe transportation to work. 

Routté notes that while the youth council has resumed their focus on education efforts, they now have a demonstrated mechanism for and commitment to responsive, youth-led action when their community needs to rally around future social justice issues.

“I really love seeing how people take things and run with them, see their efforts grow and ripple out. It’s inspirational,” she says.

How Rackham Helps

A 2021 Rackham Public Scholarship Grant recipient, Routté is grateful to the funding that connected her to this project and with the members of the youth council. 

In addition to sparking life-long personal connections, the project changed the nature of Routté’s dissertation project, tentatively titled Space, Place and Landscapes of Immobility: Refugee Youth Resettlement System, and Spatial Negotiations of Belonging.

“This grant literally shaped my dissertation project, so I’m thankful for that!” Routté says.