When I arrived in the United States as an immigrant from Zimbabwe, I was 18 years old, excited and enthusiastic about living in this country. I came on a full scholarship to Bennett College in North Carolina to earn undergraduate degrees in accounting and business management, and then to the University of North Carolina to earn a master’s degree in business.
From day one, I felt welcomed here. I felt supported. I felt anything was possible in this country where I could achieve much more than my biggest dreams. While I know my experience is different from that of people with refugee status who have fled to Minnesota for safety, I hope they, too, felt supported upon their arrival.
In the past three decades, Minnesota has welcomed and offered safety to more than 100,000 refugees from 100 countries. As refugees become more established, we also support their contributions and successes. Recently at the Minnesota Department of Human Services, we recognized 10 individuals with the Outstanding Refugee Award.
Some were recognized for their civic engagement, facilitating cultural, food and language sessions so that community members can learn more about their Somali neighbors and build cross-cultural friendships. Others were honored for their entrepreneurial spirit, providing bilingual and bicultural mental health services to adolescents and adults. Still others were recognized for their leadership as youth, helping newly immigrated families with enrolling children in school, finding housing and translating important information, and for their resilience and courage, helping other refugees resettle in Minnesota.
All share a desire for what most of us want: Good health, satisfying work, safe neighborhoods, happy families, welcoming communities and opportunities to pursue our dreams. I encourage you to read more about their inspiring stories on our website.
Over the years I have found what often divides us is our misunderstanding or lack of information about each other. Once we take time to learn about each other as individuals, as parents, as colleagues, as young people with dreams, we often discover all that we have in common and all that we have to enrich each other’s lives. This is what I have learned about our neighbors who have come to this country to start their lives anew:
- They work hard to earn a living for themselves and their families while helping to meet Minnesota’s needs for workers.
- They launch businesses. They come with ideas and an understanding of new markets. They are willing to take risks to succeed.
- They contribute. They pay taxes and invest in our communities. They appreciate the supports they received upon arrival and give back to make Minnesota better for all of us.
- They help us stay globally aware. They enrich our communities with new food, music, cultures and ways of thinking that propel us forward.
But before they do this, they need a little help. That’s where the Minnesota Department of Human Services comes in. When individuals arrive from all over the world to take refuge in our state, our Resettlement Programs Office provides the kind of temporary, but essential, help they need to get established – help understanding new systems, getting their first job in America, learning English, supporting their children’s success in school and applying for citizenship.
Since I arrived in America in 1992, I’ve frequently asked myself, “How did that little girl from Zimbabwe get here?” I have thrived because I was welcomed, supported and given the opportunity to reach my potential. It is humbling to know the responsibility and privilege I have today to support our neighbors in the same way I was helped; the same way we all need a helping hand at times.
For those who have had the privilege to live here your entire lives, I encourage you to reach out in kindness to refugees and other immigrants in our communities. Learn about and celebrate the contributions these neighbors make to our state. By taking the time to listen to and learn from each other, we can see our common hopes and dreams as our country’s strength.
Minnesota Department of Human Services Assistant Commissioner for Community Supports Gertrude Matemba-Mutasa is responsible for ensuring equitable access to services that support healthy outcomes for people to choose how to live, work and enjoy life in their communities. The department’s Resettlement Programs Office is responsible for overseeing the successful transitions for immigrants to Minnesota.
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