There has been a great push in our community to educate our citizens regarding the truths around refugee resettlement. I must give great props to Stearns County and the St Cloud Times for all of the articles they have put out lately to help to breakdown barriers. This is a very important first step as there are many people in our community that are able to speak confidently and give an air of education and knowledge, yet continue to spread false information.
Another important step to all of this is hearing the stories. Yeah, I know. I must sound like a broken record right about now. But it’s true, isn’t it? We can look at simple numbers and for some of us it helps to put it into a clearer perspective, but for others it isn’t until you start to think about what those numbers truly represent that you can begin to understand. The numbers represent people. Real people with hopes, dreams, faults, and gifts. It takes their stories to allow us to even begin to empathize and walk in those shoes; it isn’t until we discover what it is really like to live that life that it becomes real and of value.
I’ve had the chance to speak with several refugees from various countries over the last few years, some telling tales of torture and missing the limbs to prove it. Those stories are heartbreaking, but I want to show you the hardships of even the most basic of stories. I reached out to the Somali community (as they are the largest refugee community in Stearns county) to see if someone was willing to share their story and talk about what it is like to be a refugee . I had the chance to speak with *Fatuma, a local Somali refugee, who was kind enough to share her story with me.
Fatumo is from south Somalia. She spoke of the beauty of the country, there alongside the ocean. The Somalia of her memories nothing like the Somalia we see on the news. It was almost cosmopolitan filled with good, hard working people and women who had more freedoms than anywhere else in the Arab/Muslim world. She was 18 and happy there, going to school, learning english and building a life with her husband until she and her siblings needed to flee.
That was 20 + years ago. They fled to Kenya, no adults to accompany them as their parents had died. Fatumo admits she was one of the lucky ones. Their family had an older brother who had already made it to the US two years prior and was able sponsor them as well as to send them money. They were able to stay in an apartment as they awaited their fate; nothing like the life of many refugees living in camps; many without walls but simple plastic sheeting to protect them from the elements. Rations are light and without extra support many still go hungry and do not have the means to build even a mud structure to live in while they wait months, years, and sometimes decades. Many families are not able to depart as one unit and are forced to leave children, spouses, or parents behind.
Though things in many ways for Fatumo and her family were easier than some, she still can’t help to compare it to a house fire. She and her family lost everything. We aren’t talking about a move to the US, but a fleeing to safety. There were no boxes filled with personal belongs or family photo albums. It was all lost. She has no photos of her ancestors. Instead she had her family, more than most are able to say, and her unborn child growing in her womb. She was six months pregnant when she landed in California where her older brother lived. America was not completely unlike what she had seen in the movies, her only reference. She told me how she had spent 5 hours in JFK Airport, feet so swollen from pregnancy and travel she had to carry her shoes, watching movie after movie. Most of what she saw after she left the airport matched her theatrical experience- breathtaking scenery and weather similar to her home in Africa. However, there was still a huge culture shock. She lost her identity. She was no longer Fatumo, but a piece of paper and an I-94 number. The cost of living in California was heavy and there was little work to be found. The money they were given from the federal government grant did not last long and the bills for their travel arrangements didn’t take long to roll in. Unlike a house fire, there is no insurance to replace everyday items. The $700 or so she received at that time through federal grant (now $1125) was expected to buy housing, food, dishes, toiletries, and every other item under the sun. She and her family were not eligible for any type of government aid until 30 days after arrival in their new state whether or not the money lasted that long. She realizes that having family to come to here helped save her. She had someone who was already ahead of the learning curve, had a general understanding of the working systems be it how our currency works, grocery stores, driving, etc.
“I thought of America as this beautiful place. I wasn’t thinking about free money or getting anything for free. I didn’t even know this was an option. I was thinking, ‘I will go to America. I will work hard. I will get an education’… When you get here it’s like you’re slapped in the face. You are sleeping, you’ve got to get up from your sleep. This is your reality and reality hates you.”
Fatumo left not long after their arrival and relocated to Marshall, MN, in order to secure work. The movie Fargo was her preparation for life in the upper Midwest. Can you imagine? She acknowledges that speaking English went a long way in her being able to thrive in the US.
She stated, “If you come here and don’t speak English it is miserable. Really, really miserable.”
When letters arrived from the county she was able to read them, complete them, and turn them in. Many of the families she meets with today are unable to speak or read English fluently making life so much more difficult. Whether it’s in attempting to secure benefits, obtain employment, read a lease or just buy food at the grocery store, the written word is everywhere. The government particularly loves forms. There are forms upon forms to complete not just in applying for aid initially, but for showing the time you have spent looking for work (you must spend 35 hrs per week looking for work to qualify for full benefits. Failure to do this results in less), time spent in English language classes, etc. Learning a third language at a younger age was much easier for her than for people in their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s+, not to mention saved them from trying to split time between work, English classes, studying for the green card exams that most Americans probably couldn’t pass, and raising their growing family. She wasn’t able to make ends meet as a now single mother of a small child so she was forced to look for a roommate. Through this she met her husband who was able to secure work at the local rendering plant, the only type of work eligible to most refugees. Despite what they may have done previously, the lack of English-proficient reading and writing skills limits most refugees, licenses and work experience don’t transfer, and a lack of a high school diploma leave rendering work and simple menial jobs all that is available to most refugees and 2nd immigrants. Fatumo was lucky and because of her English proficiency she was able to secure work as an interpreter- one of the few jobs open to refugees and immigrants that pays well, though the hours can be quite unpredictable. Of course, this wasn’t until she had been interpreting free of charge for the local school for some time. She wasn’t aware that she could be paid for this until someone from the community stepped up and told her.
Fatumo spoke warmly of Marshall and the families there that helped to collect dishes and other simple household items for newly arrived families and welcomed her and her baby into the community. Unfortunately, the local rendering plant closed and Fatumo was soon moving with her family to chase work. You see, the way she explains it is that this is a common pattern for refugee families in the Somali community. They often relocate from their initial settlement site in order to reunite with family, if they are lucky enough to know where they are, or to search for work (this is where they earn the title 2nd immigrant- they are relocating from their original site of placement to another state). She clearly states several times, “We want to work. Being on assistance, we view as bad. No one wants that kind of shame.” She knows that there may come a day that she and her family may need assistance and that there is a 5 year limit to aid. She makes sure that new families understand that too- Once it’s used up, there is no aid no matter how bad things get. And they are doing it. The numbers support it. When you look at the number of Somalis and other African immigrants able to get off assistance and be self-supported we see a 76.8%+ success rate after just three years. That’s HUGE!
She arrived in St Cloud in the early 2000’s with her daughter and her husband. They had located here so that her husband could obtain work at Electrolux and be closer to friends they had in the area. She was able to secure work as an interpreter and begin a new life. She spoke of the comfort that St Cloud offered as there were many of her tribe and clan or other local tribes here. That’s one of the great thing about the Somali community- they truly are a community. They realize that they have more in common than they do differently and they embrace this. They welcome those new to the community in with open arms, willing to help each other out. She explained to me how taking out loans and collecting interest are against her religion and that she actually pays back the bank every cent of interest they give her. Fatumo also explained that this is why most Muslims rent and do not own homes- it is impossible to pay that sort of cost without taking out a loan. As far as vehicles are concerned she shared that what tends to happen is that several families who are close and trust one another come together and each pitch in a predetermined amount of money such as $500. Each family who contributes signs up for the month they would like to collect the pool; with this large amount of money in hand they have what they need to buy a reliable used car or other large expense. They pay the other families back as the months roll by and they continue to contribute until their turn rolls around again. As the St. Cloud area has seen, the Somali community has also pulled together to purchase their own chunk of burial land, help business owners get off the ground and start several mosques all without loans. This has become a problem for their community as landlords have the right to reject applications due to a lack of credit. This is a real problem for the Somali community, particularly new refugees.
Life here in the early -00’s was fairly good and Fatumo notes that she didn’t receive the kind of harassment during that time as she does now. She remembers a handful of times that a building was graffitied or posters of their prophet were put up to ruffle feathers, but otherwise things were fairly mild. It was months between verbal harassment incidents; for the most part she could go about her business in peace. These days it’s nearly daily. Nearly daily. She shared story after story of how herself and her children have been unjustly treated. From her child being pulled over based on the car she drives, to being shouted at while sitting at a red light for being “too lazy” to hold her cell phone in her hand (she had it tucked into her hijab- an action she sees as safer as it allows her to keep both hands on the wheel). Those are just the most recent and the most mild.
“I am no longer urging people to come here. Not now… It is so much worse than it was, especially with this last batch of new refugees arriving… The bullying, the harassment is so much worse now. Now people do it openly and without shame.”
Few choices in work, verbal and sometimes physical harassment, these are only some of the more obvious things she has had to sacrifice. There is so much more to the story we don’t see. Fatumo sighs when I ask her about how living in the US has affected the children born here. Fatumo, like most parents, is forced to sit back helplessly as she slowly watches her culture melt away. She now speaks Somali in front of her children with friends when she doesn’t want her kids to understand, because despite her best intentions her children are not fluent in her native language. She notes this had made life difficult for her kids. At school they have difficulty making friends with the white, black, and brown “American” kids, despite the fact that her kids are American and have never known any other country than this. She notes that her kids often have trouble making friends with newly arrived immigrant/refugee kids, known by the students as FOBs (fresh off the boat), because they aren’t viewed as Somali due to their lack of accent, cushy American life, and their inability to speak fluent Somali. Fatumo is proud to say that her kids have done well to stay away from dating and her daughters still choose to wear their hijab, one is close to graduating from college, but she watches as many of the children who arrive here try hard to fit in and downplay their differences- giving up prayer in school, are dating, getting pregnant before marriage, drinking, smoking, wearing skinny jeans and removing their hijabs in public where their parents won’t see, even joining gangs. She states there are now six Somali gangs in MN, none in the St Cloud area but rather in the Twin Cities; five of these are all male and one is an all female gang. Fatumo tells me several times how she worries for her sons, especially once they can drive. She worries about the choices they will make as well as the trouble they may get into simply for being a black Somali male in the wrong place at the wrong time.
She watches as the older generations struggle to break habits they have done all their lives, such as throw their money on the counter, that are often viewed as disrespectful here in our country. She struggles not to say anything as she watches kids & teens take advantage of their parents’ inability to speak fluent English and interpret what they want their parents to hear instead of what their teachers say. Fatumo says she struggles with when to speak up and when to be silent. Speaking up can feel dangerous in our community today, she states. Other days she just doesn’t have the energy to correct someone. If anything, she wishes people would just ask her questions, to seek to understand.
“This is my home. I love America… This is my country. I am an American.”
This is the cost of refugee resettlement. It costs your heritage, your culture, your language, your beliefs, your children, and endless emotional and sometimes physical wounds.
Let me ask you, if I paid you $1125 would you give all that up if you didn’t have to?The true cost of resettlement: their heritage, their beliefs, their children & so much more... Click To Tweet
Though I think it is by far the most informative portion of the refugee issue, personal stories that is, I still feel a need to regurgitate some of the statistics again so as to leave no room for myth making.
How many Refugees come to the US?
- 2014 = 70,000 refugees brought to the US.
- One half of one percent of the world’s refugee population of 16.7 million
What is the foreign country of origin breakdown over each of the last five years?
- Largest refugee population that Lutheran Social Services currently serves in Minnesota is from Burma
- Also served people from Somalia, Iraq, Ethiopia, and the former Soviet Union
- Over the past 5 years, the largest refugee population to Stearns County has been from Somalia
How many Primary Refugees have been assigned to Stearns County annually?
- Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota settled just under 1,000 primary refugees in St. Cloud since 2008
- All of these were reunited with family members who already lived in St. Cloud
- 2016 is expecting 215 primary placements.
- Of note: this number includes only primary refugees and not those who have relocated here after initially being placed elsewhere.
What is the average monetary amount each Refugee has access to when they get to Stearns County?
- Receive federal loan for travel expenses to US to be paid back in three years
- Refugees receive a one-time federal grant of $1,125 to cover housing and initial expenses; this is used to pay all expenses as they are not eligible for county/state benefits until 30 days after arrival.
- Lutheran Social Services receives $850 per individual to do their resettlement work
- None of these benefits are derived from county tax levy dollars
- Refugees can apply for public benefits if they are eligible just like other residents
Does Stearns County have special benefits for refugees?
- The only benefit specifically targeted to refugees is the Refugee Cash Assistance program
- This is a Federal government benefit
- Refugees are eligible to apply for any other financial assistance available to the general public
- Stearns County does not track refugee status for any other financial assistance program
So those are the facts. You may have heard them all before. Some may be new. However, there is much in those numbers that we cannot show. Fatumo was kind enough to spend three hours away from her family in an attempt to put words to an issue that shapes our community is so many ways. I have promised to do my best, but I fear that I will still fail miserably.
*This article is a guest post, written by a local member of our community.
**Names have been changed to protect identities. Unfortunately, there is a fear among those of the Somali community of being targeted for speaking out and our interviewee wishes to remain anonymous. We respect her choice.
***Photos courtesy of blog Afghanistan on My Mind