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'Refugees: What can we do?' conversation includes needs of Minnesota's newcomers

Minnesota Somali community
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Examining data from 1979-2014, the cumulative number of refugees in the state is over 100,000, with most hailing from the Hmong, Somali (above), and Vietnamese communities.

Civil war, a flight from home, refugee camps – for many, these are terrible scenes on the news, the subject of op-ed columns and political debates. But for some, they are life events: real memories, the start of a protracted journey that ends in Minnesota.

That was the case for a group of panelists participating in an event held at Macalester College last week, “Refugees: What can we do?” a collaboration between Public Radio International (PRI), Gazillion Strong and Macalester’s Institute for Global Citizenship.

The gathering featured a unique format: Between academic and NGO presentations, poets, photographers, filmmakers and other artists articulated the human cost of a refugee crisis. Moderated by PRI’s Aaron Schachter, the evening swung from a documentary about a bombed Baghdad barbershop to statistics on underfunded relief efforts to a lilting refrain about Liberia. And while there was much discussion about current events in Syria, the Middle East and North Africa, the event came back, again and again, to the fact that refugees are not “out there.” They are very much here.

“Minnesota has a good national and international reputation as a place for refugee resettlement,” said Micaela Schuneman, director of refugee services at the International Institute of Minnesota, one of five agencies in the state that work to resettle refugees. “Two thousand refugees settled here in the last fiscal year.”

When combined with “secondary arrivals” – refugees who'd originally resettled to another state in the U.S. before moving to Minnesota – the number increases to approximately 4,000. And if you look at the years 1979-2014, the cumulative number of refugees in the state is over 100,000, with most of them hailing from the Hmong, Somali and Vietnamese communities. Other major groups include people from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Liberia and the Karen community from Myanmar (Burma).

Schuneman credits Minnesota’s positive reputation among refugees to established refugee communities, a wide array of social services and community partners, including school districts and the Minnesota Department of Health, as well as a history of bipartisan political support.

Minnesota Not-So-Nice

But while Minnesota’s infrastructure may be strong, some on the panel cautioned against complacency, noting the significant socioeconomic gaps for the state’s communities of color as well as the icy and isolating side of Minnesota nice.

“Progressive policies are not the same as being a welcoming place,” said Suzan Boulad, a Syrian-American activist and University of Minnesota law student. “Plus you need to address why these people need these services, the causes and power structures in place.”

“You can feel very much like ‘the other,’ like you’re on display,” said poet and photographer Khadija Charif. “I think instead, we have to think of – not us and them – but the responsibility we have to each other. There must be a dialogue.”

“Minnesota does have a reputation for being a challenging place for ‘newcomers’ generally, and the racial disparities in salaries, home ownership, and unemployment are well-documented,” said Schuneman, who noted that broader community efforts are needed.

During the panel discussion, Schuneman explained that the Department of State gives agencies like hers 90 days to provide a core group of services, including food, housing, clothing, employment services and medical care: 90 days to go from tragic circumstances, displacement and trauma to signing kids up for school and economic self-sufficiency.

Schuneman says that while their agency has many programs that extend services beyond the government-funded 90-day period, truly making refugees feel at home requires community support. “If you want to help refugees, you don’t have to look far,” she said. “You can help right here in Minnesota and make a palpable difference.”

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