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An appreciation for refugees in Greater Minnesota

As a teacher, I have the privilege of working with students who have faced more in their short lifetimes than most of us ever will.

Melinda Christianson

Our country has a long history of welcoming immigrants and refugees; in fact, it’s what we are built on. Many of our ancestors reached our nation’s shores fleeing persecution and in search of religious freedom. While we certainly can’t be proud of everything in our country’s storied past, this is one positive part of history we can agree upon.

As a teacher, I have the privilege of working with students who have faced more in their short lifetimes than most of us ever will. A recent example of this came about when my students were assigned to give a speech using an object to represent a characteristic about themselves.

One student from Somalia used his watch to explain how important time is to him. You see, this young man nearly died of malaria a few years ago while living in a Ugandan refugee camp. His family spent eight years filling out paperwork and being vetted before they were allowed to enter the United States.

Contracted malaria

It was in the last few weeks of waiting that malaria struck and almost killed this remarkable student. Luckily for us, he survived and was able to pass the arduous vetting process in order to move to Minnesota.

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He spoke of how his near-death experience helped him appreciate time with his family more and encouraged him to not waste a moment of his life. This is no ordinary student; he speaks five languages fluently and aspires to become a heart surgeon, only to provide free heart surgeries to those who need them in the country where he grew up.

There is an immeasurable amount of inspiration to be found in the lives of our refugee and immigrant students, and they provide so much to our school and community.

Knowing students such as this young man has no doubt made me a better person, which is why I work hard to help my other students have similar experiences. My intercultural communication class, for example, travels to Fargo, North Dakota, to meet and interview new American adults learning English.

Time and again, my students in western Minnesota remark that this is the most defining experience of the semester. Simply spending a couple of hours at the school lessens my students’ fears of the unknown and helps them appreciate just how much some people have gone through to simply exist.

Not just an urban issue

Some people may think this is only an urban issue; it is not. I’ve been lucky enough to spend my teaching career in the city of St. Paul, the suburb of Minnetonka, and the rural towns of Underwood and Fergus Falls. In every part of our great state, teachers can recount stories of bravery and tenacity from their refugee and immigrant students.

While we may not share a common background or religion, we share the same values — hard work, education, peace, and a hope for a better future. I am beyond thankful that in my teaching, I have had the opportunity to meet and get to know numerous students such as the young man I wrote about here. They each have their own inspiring story.

Without immigrants and refugees, our country would not be what it is today, and I will continue to show the utmost support for people who have overcome seemingly insurmountable odds just to have a chance to succeed here. I ask that you do the same.

Melinda Christianson is a language arts teacher at Kennedy Secondary School in Fergus Falls.


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