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Refugees face tough road coming to America

by Chris Hennen | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | News | September 3rd, 2015

cover by Raul Gomez and Alexis Dietz

Later this month, a series of events called Welcoming Week will happen throughout Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo to mark ways the community can celebrate refugees coming to the region with open arms. In light of that and a recent controversy over some refugees coming to Fargo through Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, High Plains Reader decided to take a look at what it’s like to be a refugee.

Why do they come here and how do they come here? According to experts we talked to, it’s not an easy process. Refugees who come here legally are only able to do so under a strict definition that they are either fleeing war or persecution. First they flee to refugee camps in neighboring countries for sometimes many years. They are there until it’s determined they can return to their home country, obviously most everyone’s preference. Then they are put on a list, interviewed and screened. It’s determined which countries, states and cities have openings. You cannot pick where you want to go unless you have relatives in the area, then the attempt is made to match you up. Once a refugee is sent to a community, organizations like LSS have three months to get them assimilated and on their feet. Many don’t know English so they are enrolled in English language programs, they learn how to drive or get around town, they are required to get a job, children are enrolled in school. After three months, any assistance ends and the refugees are expected to take over on their own.

Christian Harris is a new American who fled Liberia to come to Fargo and is now Executive Director of The New American Consortium for Wellness and Empowerment, which helps refugees get situated in Fargo. He says the process is difficult for any refugee.

“When you come from a refugee situation where you fled into another country, that is a difficult experience for anyone to go through. Some people spend a decade or more in a refugee camp. One day your name will appear on a list that you’ve been accepted to move into another country, not by your choice but by the availability of the space and the acceptance of the country,” Harris told HPR. “Once you are resettled, there is a little time that is given you, 90 days, that you must be able to get on your feet and begin to do things for yourself. That window period is so short for anyone who has spent a considerable time of his or her life in refugee camps. You expect that person to drive, and that person has never driven before, or find a job in the United States if that person has not lived here before. Many times that challenge is there for all the newcomers and they need to accelerate that time and get on their feet and be able to pay their rent and do things for themselves. It is kind of difficult. That is the main challenge that we find many of the new Americans face.”

The resettlement agency that helps these refugees come to Fargo is LSS ND, and it’s CEO, Jessica Thomasson, said all refugees who are allowed to relocate to the United States legally are screened extensively to make sure they are safe by various federal agencies like the State Department, CIA, FBI and Department of Homeland Security. A common misconception she hears is that these refugees are taking resources away from residents who are already here in the state.

“I think there’s been a lot of conversation about this idea that there really isn’t a way to welcome new people to the community without harming people who are already here. But I think our community has shown over time we are a growing, thriving place that values the idea that we should educate every child that walks through the doors of our schools and that there are jobs available for people who are willing to work and there are things to do. There really is a chance to build a life in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo, and I think that’s one of the reasons the community has been as strong as it has been for so many years,” Thomasson said.

Another aspect of that misconception is that these people are coming to Fargo and will immediately require public assistance to sustain themselves in the long run. Thomasson said the exact opposite is true of most refugees; they come here to work and become a normal part of the community.

“I think one of the things that’s important to remember in Fargo and West Fargo for sure, but also North Dakota as a whole, is we have really a lot of opportunity for people to begin to build a life. We have abundant economic opportunities, job opportunities. Honestly the families that we work with are working very soon after they get here, and they do that not only because we require it as part of the program but because they want to … they want their families to succeed in the long run, which is really the reason that they are going through all of this. They are going through that to work.” She replied.

Harris said new Americans need to be welcomed and not feared, because they want to be productive members of society just like everyone else in the community.

“When you look around here, you see in many of the companies and businesses here new Americans who are productive people: they work, they earn their money, they own homes, they own cars, their children go to school and go to college and graduate. So there’s no need to be afraid of anyone … we just need to be tolerant and be able to accommodate other people so we can all live and be happy together,” Harris replied.

So what is it like to be a new American? Why do people do it if it’s so tough? The answer is many don’t have a choice: it’s either face death if they stay where they were born or move on and face years of relocation. Mohy Omer, a native of Sudan, fled his country when he began protesting genocide happening in Darfur and the government began killing protesters.

“We had to flee, otherwise we would have been killed. So that’s when I decided to flee the county to save my life and escape death,” Omer told HPR.

Omer went to a refugee camp in Kenya for two years and was resettled in Fargo in April of 2009. He knew no one and didn’t speak English. He took English classes and went to community college and eventually graduated from NDSU, all while working as a cashier for Target. Recently he completed an internship for Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. He feels a majority of Fargo citizens welcomed him but there were some who misunderstood refugees.

“A lot of people have misconceptions, like refugees are dependent people, they depend on the government and they abuse the welfare system or they abuse government assistance, which I found to be incredibly incorrect,” Omer said. “Because as a refugee I lived in a refugee camp where there is nothing, there is no work, no opportunities to go to good schools, basically nothing and that makes you really bored and you want to do something and you want to get involved with something to feel somewhat valued. When we come here as refugees, in general, we are eager to work, to be independent, to contribute to the community we live in. We feel like we need to work, we need to make money, we need to be on our own. That’s what is driving us, but you don’t see people who see that. All they see is like the temporary help that we get from the government shelter and basic food until you get a job. And then you are off of the program.”

Omer is currently looking for work in Washington, D.C. because he couldn’t find work in his field once he graduated. That is a source of major frustration for him as he wanted to stay in Fargo.

“I love Fargo. Fargo is my hometown. The state of North Dakota is my home state. I have friends, I have my host family. That’s my foundation but because I am not able to find a job in the field that I studied at the University, I have to leave to find a job somewhere else, it’s just odd. And a lot of new Americans have already did that and many of them are doing that. I think that’s wrong,” Omer told HPR.

Omer believes one of the reasons he couldn’t find work was because he was a refugee. And he said knows other new Americans in the same situation including ones with degrees in science and a friend with a teaching degree who has no accent and has lived in the city since was a child.

“I think my status being a refugee and my accent, I think those factors hold true that maybe because of that I am not able to be where I wanted to be or where I should be in the state. So I don’t believe that because of lack of jobs because that doesn’t make sense by any means,” Omar replied.

Omer thinks state and city leaders as well as new American leaders need to get together and engage the community in events such as Welcoming Week to educate everyone on who the refugees are and why they are important to a community.

“I think the state of North Dakota has this very traditional way of doing things but the reality is that the demographics of the state are changing and the population is changing, everything is changing but you still feel we have those old way of doing things is not changing, it’s the same thing even though everything around it is changing. So I think it’s the responsibility of the state leadership and they have to find a way,” Omar remarked. “We have to find a way of engaging the leaders of the new American community into the public’s face. We have to do that. That’s another way of helping to educate the community and helping to hopefully the new American community and the host community together. They are many ways but those are just a few ways in which you can bring people together.”

IF YOU GO: Welcoming Week events begin on September 12 and continue every day through September 20. A complete list of events in Fargo and Moorhead can be found on the Facebook page

Security Screening Process of Refugees:


Refugee Status: In most cases the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) determines that the individual qualifies as a refugee under international law. A refugee is someone who has fled from his or her home country and cannot return because he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.


Referral to the United States: A refugee that meets one of the criteria for resettlement in the United States is referred to the U.S. government by UNHCR, a U.S. Embassy, or a trained Non-Governmental Organization.


Resettlement Support Center: A Resettlement Support Center (RSC), contracted by the U.S. Department of State, compiles the refugee’s personal data and background information for the security clearance process and to present to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for an in-person interview.


Security Clearance Process: With information collected by the RSC, a number of security checks are conducted. The State Department runs the names of all refugees referred to the United States for resettlement through a standard CLASS (Consular Lookout and Support System) name check. In addition, enhanced interagency security checks were phased in beginning in 2008 and applied to all refugee applicants by 2010.


Security Clearance Process: Certain refugees undergo an additional security review called a Security Advisory Opinion (SAO). These cases require a positive SAO clearance from a number of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies in order to continue the resettlement process. When required, this step runs concurrently with Step

*Note that under limited circumstances, refugee applicants may be interviewed in their home country rather than in a country of asylum.


Security Clearance Process: Refugees who meet the minimum age requirement have their fingerprints and photograph taken by a trained U.S. government employee, usually on the same day as their DHS interview. The fingerprints are then checked against various U.S. government databases and information on any matches is reviewed by DHS.


In-person Interview: All refugee applicants are interviewed by an officer from DHS’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). A trained officer will travel to the country of asylum* to conduct a detailed, face-to- face interview with each refugee applicant being considered for resettlement. Based on the information in the refugee’s case file and on the interview, the DHS officer will determine if the individual qualifies as a refugee and is admissible under U.S. law.


DHS Approval: If the USCIS officer finds that the individual qualifies as a refugee and meets other U.S. admission criteria, the officer will conditionally approve the refugee’s application for resettlement and submit it to the U.S. Department of State for final processing. Conditional approvals become final once the results of all security checks (Steps 4, 5, and 6) have been received and cleared.


Medical Screening: All refugee applicants approved for resettlement in the U.S. are required to undergo medical screening conducted by the International Organization for Migration or a physician designated by the U.S. Embassy.

—STEP 10

Matching Refugees with a Sponsor Agency: Every refugee is assigned to a Voluntary Agency in the U.S., such as the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI). USCRI will place refugees with a local partner agency or office that will assist refugees upon their arrival in the U.S.

—STEP 11

Cultural Orientation: In addition, refugees approved for resettlement are offered cultural orientation while waiting for final processing, to prepare them for their journey to and initial resettlement in the United States.

—STEP 12

Security Clearance Process: Prior to departure to the U.S., a second interagency check is conducted for most refugees to check for any new information. Refugees must clear this check in order to depart to the U.S.

—STEP 13

Admission to the United States: Upon arrival at one of five U.S. airports designated as ports of entry for refugee admissions, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer will review the refugee documentation and conduct additional security checks to ensure that the arriving refugee is the same person who was screened and approved for admission to the United States.


FM Area Welcoming Week schedule:

Saturday the 12th of September:

* Flags from 50 nations will be flown in downtown Fargo.

Sunday the 13th:

* Growing Together and the Cultural Diversity Resource Center will host a Community Meal at Rabanus Park, 4315 18th Ave SW in Fargo, starting at 11:30 am with garden tours and food stories. Official program at 12:30, followed by meal and visiting until 2:00 pm.

Monday the 14th:

* SBA Entrepreneur and Immigrant Business Workshop 4-9 pm at Prairie Den, 122 ½ Broadway in Fargo

Tuesday the 15th:

*CHARISM Family Movie Night, with The Fargo Police Department. 6:00 pm at Jefferson Elementary 1701 4th Ave S, Fargo, ND

Wednesday the 16th:

* Job Services of ND Open House: 3 pm. 1350 32nd Avenue South in Fargo

* Volunteer recruitment and orientation at the Fargo Public Library. 7:00 – 8:30 pm. 102 3rd Street N in Fargo

Thursday the 17th:

*Constitution Day: A Nation of Immigrants. 11:30- 12:00. NDSU Mandan Room. Upper Level of Memorial Union 1401 Administrative Avenue, Fargo, ND

* The Gathering Garden (25th Street and 40th Ave): Games and food; family fun. 4:00-8:00 pm.

Friday the 18th :

*Food and culture at LSS. Refugee Elders. 12-2 pm. 3911 20th Ave South in Fargo

* The WE Center Open House, New American Consortium for Wellness and Empowerment. 5-9 pm. 15 - 21st Street South Fargo

Saturday the 19th:

*Multi-ethnic soccer tournament. Johnson Park. 10 am to 6 pm at 1420 11th Ave N in Fargo

Sunday the 20th:

* The Colors and Cultures of Somali, Fargo Public Library, 2-3 pm. 102 3rd Street N in Fargo

* International Day of Peace celebration. The event will be held at 4:00 PM in the Clapp Senior Center in the Carlson Library Complex on 32nd Avenue South, Fargo. The event will have music and readings that represent various populations and faith communities in the Fargo/Mhd. area.

September 24th, just after Welcome Week, Job Services North Dakota will have a city wide Job Fair and offer support services for New Americans searching for employment. 1350 32nd Ave South in Fargo

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