TRAVERSE CITY — An alarm bell went off, indicating the speaker exceeded the three minutes allowed for public comment, but Grand Traverse County Board Chair, Rob Hentschel, only gave a small wave.
“You can just turn that off,” he said, his voice heavy with emotion.
The speaker was Blessing Ovie, 19, originally of Nigeria and resettled here as part of Bethany Christian Services’ work with refugees.
“Everything was taken from me,” Ovie told commissioners and the group of supporters who’d gathered in the Governmental Center Wednesday morning.
“All I wanted to do was just die. Because I thought there was no home for me.”
After her mother got sick, Ovie said she was in danger of being preyed upon by criminals, so she left her home country and made her way to a refugee camp in Morocco.
It took three years but Ovie eventually spoke with a United Nations worker there who asked if she’d like to go to the United States.
“I laughed and said, ‘What am I going to do there?’ But they told me, ‘There is a second chance for you. The fact that your mother is dead does not mean you should give up on life,’” Ovie said.
Ovie is now a student at Traverse City High School and works part-time in a specialty food market. She shared her experiences in advance of a unanimous vote by commissioners to provide written consent for refugee resettlement.
Refugee status is only granted to people who have not yet entered the country, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.
Those who meet the definition of refugee but already are in the U.S., or are seeking admission at a port of entry, can apply for asylum status, the website states.
U.S. law defines a refugee as someone outside his or her country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return home because of persecution or a “well-founded fear” of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.
The commissioners vote followed an executive order by President Donald Trump, requiring written consent from state governors and local officials, as of Dec. 25.
Both are required to resettle refugees in the municipality, according to the executive order.
So if, for example a governor gave consent but a county commission did not, no refugee resettlement could occur in that county, according to materials provided by Bethany Christian Services.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gave her written consent in December, staff at Bethany Christian Services were in contact with County Administrator Nate Alger beginning in November, but the issue was not on the board’s agenda until January.
Commissioner Brad Jewett wanted to know if the executive order had an expiration date or if it was open-ended.
Vice Chair Ron Clous asked about the ages of refugees and their employment status.
“This is for children? Or adults? Are they coming with jobs they will be doing or are they collecting government subsidies?” he said.
Michelle Brunner, domestic and refugee foster care supervisor at Bethany Christian Services, explained their “small scale” program includes unaccompanied minors, like Ovie, who are placed in licensed foster care homes, attend school and often work part-time.
Adults qualify for Medicaid and some federal assistance benefits for approximately three months, and most are working long before that time, she said.
“Are there limitations, from the federal government or something, to prevent 10,000 people coming all at once?” Hentschel asked.
Brunner said the federal government placed a cap of 18,000 on refugees resettling in the U.S. this year. So far, Bethany Christian Services has resettled six unaccompanied minors in Grand Traverse County and 11 family members, both children and adults, from Ukraine.
Bethany Christian Services is an international organization which has operated a Traverse City office since 1999. The nonprofit works in more than 30 states and a dozen countries supporting children and families, according to their website.
Some commissioners shared their own stories of interactions with refugees.
Commissioner Bryce Hundley told of the family from Vietnam — a married couple, their four children and a grandmother — who stayed with his family for six weeks when he was in elementary school.
It was 1979, Hundley said, and during the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
“What they said to us was, ‘We cannot afford to buy the food, but if you give us the kitchen, we’ll take care of it.’ So for the next six weeks I had my mind opened to Vietnamese food. This is a great thing, and I think we as Americans have the capacity to always, always, always accept people in need,” Hundley said.
Hentschel said he’d participated in a Rotary group’s “adopt a family for Christmas” program, and the family he was assigned to shop for happened to be from Ukraine.
“We got to meet them, meet their families, and some time later I saw the father mopping the floor at a local retailer,” Hentschel said. “It’s not the freeloader coming in and getting free stuff. They’re actually out in the community, working.”
Commissioner Sonny Wheelock Jr. made a motion to pass a resolution to provide Secretary of State Michael Pompeo with written consent, Commissioner Brad Jewett seconded and the motion passed unanimously on a roll call vote.
“One comment in regards to the discussion about whether or not this should have an end date,” Wheelock said. “These are very hardworking people and they support each other very well, probably better than many of the rest of us do. These people are vetted and they are doing it the right way. It’s not like they are fleeing across the border in the dark.”
Reporter Alexa Zoellner contributed to this story.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the name of Blessing Ovie and to correct the year Bethany Christian Services opened its Traverse City branch. — Jan. 9, 2020; Jan. 24, 2020.