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Refugees could land in Brightmoor in Detroit plan

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit’s blighted Brightmoor neighborhood is emerging as one possible destination for refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries as city officials work with clergy and community groups on resettlement efforts.

In recent months, officials have held a handful of sessions in the mayor’s office to engage the state’s resettlement agencies with Detroit leaders and community organizations. Another meeting — pulling together 30 faith-based leaders — is slated for Friday at City Hall, says Alexis Wiley, Mayor Mike Duggan’s chief of staff.

Duggan has said Detroit is prepared to host refugees from Syria and other countries. He’s committed to welcoming 50 refugee families a year to the city from Syria and elsewhere for the next three years.

“It’s a humanitarian effort and we want to be a part of it,” said Thomas Rutherford, secretary of the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit, who will attend Friday’s meeting, which will include city officials and representatives from resettlement agencies. Duggan is not expected to be present.

“As clergy, as a community of faith, we decided it was an excellent idea to stand with our country and the city to assist,” he added.

Duggan’s Department of Neighborhoods for District 1 invited a group of northwest Detroiters to discuss refugee resettlement in Brightmoor, a neighborhood in northwest Detroit that’s been been plagued by crime and blight.

A notice announcing the gathering billed it as an opportunity for the selected attendees to learn about the “mayor’s office resettlement strategy” and provide feedback on how Brightmoor can become engaged with the process.

The meeting had been slated for next Tuesday, but after The Detroit News asked about it Thursday, officials said it was being postponed. The meeting in Brightmoor was to have been the first outside City Hall.

Longtime community activist John George was among those invited to the Brightmoor session and he said he’s eager to learn more.

“I personally believe that there’s room for everybody. This is America,” said George, who heads the nonprofit Motor City Blight Busters. “Everything is possible.”

Wiley stressed that the city won’t have a role in choosing the Detroit neighborhoods where refugees will be housed. The refugee resettlement agencies serving Metro Detroit make those placement decisions, she said.

Duggan has noted that some of the city’s vacant housing stock could accommodate refugees, and that a significant number of Syrian and other Middle Eastern communities are based in Metro Detroit.

In Brightmoor, officials have worked with the local West African community to develop an area that’s welcoming for Nigerians and other West Africans, said Christine Sauve, a coordinator for Welcoming Michigan, which helps communities set up programs for new immigrant arrivals.

Larry Simmons, executive director of the Brightmoor Alliance, expects the upcoming talk will serve as an extension of those efforts. Simmons sees the opportunity as positive for the neighborhood, but acknowledged “everybody does not share that point of view.”

“I think it’s a good idea. But there are other opinions in the community,” said Simmons, a pastor whose Baber Memorial AME church was to host the meeting. “Even though there are complexities because of what’s going on in the Middle East, I hope our spirit will include them as we’ve included others.”

About 4,000 refugees arrive annually throughout Michigan. In 2014, the state had the third highest number of all refugee arrivals in the country, behind California and Texas, Sauve said.

Sauve has attended the meetings between resettlement agencies, the mayor’s office and community partners over the past couple of months. Participants, she said, have talked with Detroit’s transportation, neighborhoods and health departments to assess services available in Detroit for refugees as well as services that need to be enhanced.

“I expect this year to be a big year for the city where you’ll start to see more community engagement and more unveiling of what the plan will be,” she said.

In October, the mayor spent two days in Washington, D.C., speaking with federal Homeland Security, State, and Customs and Immigration officials regarding his offer to host Syrians and other refugees.

The latest discussions surrounding possible settlement of refugees in Detroit come in the wake of a visit Wednesday to Dearborn by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. The mayor offered opening remarks at a separate refugee roundtable attended by Johnson in Detroit.

Johnson has defended the Obama administration’s security screening of refugee applicants from Syria and Iraq as “extraordinarily thorough and strong” and stressed his agency’s commitment to continually updating it.

Gov. Rick Snyder has suspended efforts to open Michigan to Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war, joining other governors in calling on the federal government to review and strengthen security screenings of refugee applicants.

But Duggan has countered that he’s confident refugees are being vetted carefully and that people fleeing terror in other parts of the world would be welcome in Detroit.

The Nov. 13 attacks in Paris by the Islamic State prompted more than two dozen governors, as well as lawmakers in the U.S. House, to seek to block efforts to resettle Syrian refugees in the U.S. over fears that militants planning a domestic attack would arrive among them.

Michigan, like other states, could not legally deny entrance to admitted refugees, although it could make the situation more difficult by refusing to assist with housing and some social services — something the Snyder administration has not threatened to do.

Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.