Mohammad Q. and his family have made decisions few among us can imagine.
The family are Hazara Shia Muslim and natives of Pakistan, a majority Sunni Muslim country. When Mohammad was 10, his father left their home to see if the family could resettle safely in Afghanistan.
They never heard from him again and believe he was killed. “We look different from Pakistani people, so we’re not safe,” Mohammad says. “Hazara, they’re killed everywhere.”
When Mohammad was 16, his mother sold their home to pay for him to flee. He landed in a United Nations refugee camp in Indonesia. After 18 months, just shy of his 18th birthday, he arrived in Detroit in time to qualify for placement in a foster home.
Unlike many other refugee youth, he found one.
In 2015, nearly 34,000 minors who lost their families due to war, violence, or separation arrived in the United States. But a serious shortage of families willing to take them in tosses many into limbo.
This summer, Samaritas, a century-old Lutheran organization that provides adoption and foster care placement for U.S. and refugee children, among other services, only placed 12 percent of the children referred by the U.S. government.
“There are only 22 unaccompanied refugee minor programs in the country, which is pretty crazy when you think about how many kids and youth are alone,” says Michelle Haskell, outreach team lead for Refugee Child and Family Services at Samaritas.
Michigan has two of those programs: Samaritas and Bethany Christian Services. Yet only about 200 refugee youth are placed with foster families in Michigan annually. Placement is crucial. Those placed prior to age 18 are eligible for services until age 21; after age 18, they’re resettled as adults, which means they get 90 days of support from the government.
Children unable to find placement are sent to detention centers — jails, essentially — or to group homes and other shelter facilities.
Mohammad was fortunate. He was referred to Samaritas by The United States Office of Refugee Resettlement and sent to Detroit, where he met his foster mom, Karen.
“I’m a social worker, so naturally I’m a caregiver,” Karen says. She agreed to become a foster mother after her father, who had Alzheimer’s, passed away. “I was here by myself in this big house.”
Karen was reluctant to become a foster parent through the state system, in part because she didn’t want to deal with having a child stay with her only briefly. She also felt daunted by the differences in language and religion. But shortly after Mohammad arrived, she found she enjoyed learning about Islam and about his culture.
“It’s a blessing that I have the ability to open up my home to someone who’s been persecuted because of their religion or culture or ethnicity,” she says. “It’s the American way, because America was built on immigrants.”
It’s been challenging for Mohammad. He was prohibited from attending school in his home country, and he had no formal education. He was enrolled as a sophomore in the local high school.
“For me, it’s like everything is new,” Mohammad says. “I never been to school. What is the teacher talking about? What am I doing? Now, I feel better. After four or five months I understand some, so I start talking. I have friends at school now.”
Mohammad is also working to obtain a driver’s license and has secured his green card. He’s enrolled in a vocational construction program through school and landed a job in janitorial services.
Mohammad enjoys air conditioning and dependable electricity — and learning from Karen how to navigate American culture. “I’m very thankful … for everything she is doing for me,” Mohammad says. “I really appreciate it. She helps me a lot to buy stuff, go to market, read the prices, everything.”
Foster parents also offer something more than navigation aid. “The primary thing these youth … need (is) love and understanding,” Haskell says. “They have gone through a period of their lives where it’s been intense turmoil. The security that comes with having a family is huge.”
Karen says that after several months in his new country, Mohammad is “more free. He breathes now, like this is home.”
Mohammad is in touch with his mother back in Pakistan. Once he secures U.S. citizenship, likely in several years, he can apply for family reunification.
Until then, he’s grateful. “Everything is good here,” he says. “I feel like it’s my home.”
How to Help
Foster parents needn’t speak a foreign language. However, they must be financially stable, able to provide 40 square feet of sleeping space per person in a room, and be willing to support a youth’s desire to practice his or her religion and culture. Samaritas provides training and support for foster parents. Visit samaritas.org for more information.