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‘We live together’: How a group dedicated to helping Rochester’s immigrants and refugees has evolved to meet community needs

Rochester’s Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association is a 35-year-old nonprofit dedicated to helping newcomers find stability, self-sufficiency, independence and community in a new country.

Armin Budimlic
Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association executive director Armin Budimlic: “We want to give people the tools they need to make a home for themselves here.”
MinnPost photo by Andy Steiner

Though he’s been living here far too long to consider himself a new American, Armin Budimlic remembers what it felt like 25 years ago when he first arrived in Rochester from his native Bosnia Herzegovina.

A refugee fleeing war with his wife and two young children, Budimlic felt overwhelmed and exhausted, but he was determined to make a life for himself and his family in this new, strange place. He just needed a little help.

Today, Budimlic recognizes those same emotions in the faces of the immigrants and refugees he sees every day in his work as executive director of Rochester’s Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association (IMAA), a 35-year-old nonprofit dedicated to helping newcomers find stability, self-sufficiency, independence and community in a new country.

“We want to give people the tools they need to make a home for themselves here,” Budimlic said. “That’s our focus every day.”

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That straightforward mission, the vision of IMAA founder the late Bob Jones III, a former U.S. State Department employee with a lifelong commitment to international cooperation, has been challenged in the last few years, as changing government policies have significantly slowed the flow of new arrivals to this country.

“The political environment has changed, and the funding streams have gone down from the government,” Budimlic said. “Most recently the number of new arrivals has plummeted.”

Despite this shift, IMAA continues to grow, thanks to internal diversification and a strong commitment to meeting the needs of secondary migrants who come to the region seeking jobs and other opportunities.

The number of full-time IMAA staff is up from 15 five years ago to 31 employees who speak some 15 different languages, and the nonprofit’s annual operating budget has more than doubled, from $1.2 to $2.5 million. This growth means that the organization is already nearly bursting out of its 10-year-old headquarters, an ecologically sustainable building on the edge of town.

Earlier this year, IMAA was awarded a $100,000 operational grant from the St. Paul-based Otto Bremer Trust (disclosure: Otto Bremer Trust is also a MinnPost sponsor). The grant will support staff in advancing the organizational mission of “building bridges between cultures” through its community health worker, translation, victim services and employment services programs, growing initiatives that have helped the organization expand its reach into the general population. “It’s a real opportunity for us to really invest in ourselves as an organization,” Budimlic said. “Otto Bremer supports that. It is rare to find a foundation today that will provide a grant for capacity building.”

Budimlic credits much of his organization’s continued growth to a strong environment of support from the region’s civic and religious leaders.

“There are a lot of compassionate, well-intentioned people in this community, and many organizations — whether they are business or faith communities or nonprofits — are extremely involved in supporting new Americans,” he said. That overarching ethic infuses the community as a whole, Budimlic believes, making Rochester stand out as a place where migrants largely feel welcome.

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That welcoming impulse isn’t entirely altruistic, he adds. Supporting newcomers has had a positive economic impact on the region: “That openness has benefited both the community and the workforce here. I think our leaders, both city and county, have understood that and continue to be involved in creating opportunities that welcome people from around the world. Our economy benefits from that.”

Seeds of service

Budimlic explained that Jones was inspired to found IMAA in part from personal experience. The State Department had stationed him in Vietnam in the 1960s when the war broke out, and, Budimlic said, “He was involved in getting some people out of Vietnam and resettling them into the United States.”

After returning to Rochester, Jones saw that refugees from Southeast Asia who had settled there were having a hard time finding resources in the community.

“At the time we had a small resettlement program in place and resettlement agencies that would bring people from the refugee camps to the U.S., but they were only charged with working with them for a short time,” Budimlic said. “They would bring them in and work with them six to nine months, but not long-term. People were struggling to adapt.”  

Jones wanted to fill that gap, Budimlic said.   

“Bob came up with this great vision that there should be a community-based organization that would be in charge of that warm handoff of those individuals and be able to help them in the longer term adjust to the new environment and eventually help them become contributing members of their new community.”

Jones chose the name Intercultural Mutual Assistance Program deliberately, Budimlic said.

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“There are mutual assistance associations in other parts of Minnesota, namely in the Twin Cities, but they are generally established to serve one language group or one ethnic group,” he said. “IMAA from the beginning had a multicultural, multilingual approach, reflecting the community that we live in. We don’t live in a vacuum: We live together. The founders of IMAA wanted that to be reflected in its name.”

Change with the times

At the beginning, Budimlic explained that IMAA was funded largely by public grants. Early employees worked as “family assisters,” helping new arrivals to Rochester with a variety of basic tasks.

“These were things that you would imagine people would need when they first came to a community,” he said, “like taking them grocery shopping, helping them to understand and use bus routes, connecting them with schools, helping them employment. You name it: They were doing all of it.”

Over the years, the organization expanded to offer more services to the community, including translation services in a range of languages in schools, government offices and hospitals (many translators are new Americans themselves, hired by IMAA as contractors); a team of MNSure navigation experts to help residents sign up for state health care benefits; victim services support for people escaping domestic violence or exploitation; and community health workers who support individuals with basic health needs like blood-pressure checks, social support and connections to social services. Funding streams have shifted to reflect this new approach.

Organizational flexibility has been central to IMAA’s overall vitality, Budimlic believes. The attitude that “we live here together” also means that the organization’s services should be available to everyone in the community, not just immigrants and refugees. The new service offerings directly reflect that ethic.   

“While our mission is still largely focused on our community’s refugee and immigrant populations, we also provide services to mainstream populations here as well,” Budimlic said.  

A good example of that is IMAA’s MNSure navigator program, which assists on some 2,500 applications annually. “A big number of those applications are for mainstream folks who are in need of health care,” Budimlic said. “Similarly, through our community health worker programs, we serve patients from Mayo Clinic. Again, many of those are mainstream folks. When we look at where the people we serve reside, we cover the whole of southeastern Minnesota.”

While IMAA was founded to provide support for immigrants and refugees who had just arrived in the country, that has also changed. Today it is much more likely for the organization’s clients to be secondary immigrants, people who initially settled in other states or cities but then moved to Rochester. Upon arrival, many reach out to IMAA for help understanding the city and its social services.

MinnPost photo by Andy Steiner
IMAA continues to grow, thanks to internal diversification and a strong commitment to meeting the needs of secondary migrants who come to the region seeking jobs and other opportunities.
Budimlic thinks that immigrants keep coming to Rochester for a number of reasons.

“It has to do with the welcoming environment, the opportunities for jobs and good life here, and there are some well established communities already. In the city of Rochester, the Southeast Asian community has been around for over 30 years. The Somali community is really strong and well established.”

While strong immigrant and refugee communities may draw people to the Rochester area, Budimlic believes that for many people, the range of jobs open to new arrivals is also a major attraction.  

“The industries that we have in our region, a lot of them being food processing, hospitality, health care, attract new arrivals for their initial jobs,” he said. “We also have great educational institutions and great a school system that also attracts families.”

From the start, IMAA employed bilingual staff so that they could be more responsive to their clients’ needs. The organization’s bylaws reflected that desire: There is an article that requires that 51 percent of people serving on IMAA’s board of directors have to come from the first-generation and refugee groups. The nonprofit operates with an international attitude.

“We want to keep that focus on service to immigrants and refugees in our area,’ Budimlic said. “We want to keep our eyes open to the expanding world.”

The makeup of Rochester’s immigrant and refugee population has shifted in recent years, he said. “In the ’80s it was Southeast Asians. In the ’90s it became Bosnians and people from the former Yugoslavia. Then Somalis, then eventually folks form South Sudan. Most recently we are seeing folks from the Middle East, Iraq, Syria. The most recent immigrants that are still arriving in small numbers are from Myanmar.”

To stay in step with these changes, IMAA has made a point of building a staff that reflects these new arrivals.

“We made sure that over time we hired people from new populations so we would be responsive to their needs,” Budimlic said. “IMAA would be the first organization that would hire people from those communities to serve as a bridge, which is our mission of building bridges between cultures.”

‘Here for good’

Barni Abokor moved to Rochester to start her life over.

She came to America, fleeing war and unrest in her native Somalia more than two decades ago, but for her, life in this country was less than ideal: She lived in fear of her abusive husband, isolated from the world and miserable. While the family moved from one town to another, the fearful Abokor mostly stayed inside, caring for her children.

“I was a stay-at-home mom for 15 years,” Abokor said. “My husband didn’t want me to have friends or go into the community.” When Abokor tried telling her family about her situation, or tried floating the idea of leaving her husband, she got little support, even from her mother.

“My mom said, ‘It’s OK. Stay. It’s OK getting hit. Why get mad?’” Abokor recalled. “If you don’t have support, in the Somali culture, in Islam, it is not easy. If you stand up or if you talk about the truth, you lose family and friends.” Eventually, Abokor decided she couldn’t take the abuse any more. She began to learn English, to take driving lessons, to make plans to leave her husband.

It was a painful process.   

“When I spoke up I lost a lot of people,” she said, “but I had to do it for myself, to save my kids.”

Abokor, her husband and children were living in Des Moines, Iowa, but she had heard that Rochester was a medium-sized city with a strong Somali population.  She eventually left her children with her husband, fleeing for her own life with the promise to fight to get them back, and moved to Minnesota, a place she calls “a woman’s state,” with strong social supports for women and families.  She was eventually granted a divorce, and after months of traveling back and forth between Iowa and Minnesota, she earned custody of her children.

“In Minnesota, if you need help, you can reach out for that help and you can stand up for yourself,” she explained. “You don’t need a man to support you and pay your bills and you be a slave. You can do it on your own here.”

At first, Abokor tried living in Minneapolis, but didn’t like its big-city feeling. She eventually moved Rochester. Within days she knew she’d found her new home.  

Abokor was introduced to IMAA when she needed help signing her children up for MNSure benefits. When she told the MNSure navigator about her history of abuse, Abokor learned about the organization’s victim services arm. After meeting with an advocate, she said she felt she was being embraced by a community that could keep her safe and strong.

“IMAA supports me and anybody else who wants support,” Abokor said. “It’s like a family. It makes you feel like you are not alone.”

Because she wanted to help other women who have lived with abuse, Abokor eventually became a volunteer in IMAA’s victim services division.

“I’m a victim advocate,” Abokor said. “We go and I help with applying for a protection order. I do housing support. I help look for the lawyer. I use my experience. Something happened to me. I don’t want that to happen to anybody else.”

Barni Abokor
MinnPost photo by Andy Steiner
Barni Abokor: “When I spoke up I lost a lot of people, but I had to do it for myself, to save my kids.”
Abokor worked several jobs in health care and as a PCA when she first moved to Rochester. As her English skills improved, she joined IMAA’s translation staff. She now works as a full-time Somali translator, assisting clients in a variety of settings.

No matter where her work takes her, Abokor is always on the lookout for women in need of assistance. She’s grateful for the help and support that the organization gave her and her children, and she wants to spread the word to others in need.  

“Anytime I see a woman needing help I give her my card,” Abokor said. “I say, ‘Contact IMAA. We will help you. We’re here for good.’”

Throughout his 14 years with the organization, Budimlic said he continues to feel inspired by IMAA’s mission.

He joined the board few years after he arrived in Rochester, looking for a way to give back. Board service got him hooked.

“Once when I learned about the work and the mission of IMAA I was sold,” Budimlic said. “It became a personal mission for me in which I recognized that I did have skills that could help people coming after me make their transition a little bit easier.” In 1998, he took a job as an employment counselor for the city’s growing Bosnian population (between 1,500-2,000 Bosnians, including some 30 of Budimlic’s own relatives, now live in Rochester).

The rest is history.  

“This job has been very exciting and fulfilling,” he said. “Thanks to IMAA, I, and countless others, can happily call Rochester our home.” Leaving everything he knew behind to come somewhere else was traumatic, he said, but with the support of the community, he has been able to make the happy life he hoped for when he first arrived all those years ago.  

“Hopefully I’ve been able to pay that back in my service to the community,” Budimlic said. “And hopefully at IMAA, we can help other newcomers make this town their home, too.”