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"A Warmer Welcome in a Colder State"
Anyone who has spent time in Minnesota has questioned: “Why are so many refugees from warm climates living in such a cold state?” There are a host of answers to this question. As MN began to welcome refugees, the strength and wealth of social service infastructure, and the experience of various groups (especially churches and synagogues) with assisting new immigrants has grown.
As Ubah, a woman who moved from Somalia to Kenya to North Carolina to Faribault, Minnesota, described how immigrants find their way to seemingly surprising locations, like rural Southern Minnesota, by describing her own family's experience.
They attract each other. Well, we came here because my mom’s relative was here, and you know, they’ll talk to each other, be like, ‘Come to Minnesota, it’s a great place, blah blah blah’ like talk about the great stuff, but they will never talk about winter. It’s true. Honestly. They never told me about winter. So when I came here, I’m like, what’s up with all this snow? Why is it not ending? Where’s summer? You know? It was just horrible. But I guess people just keep doing that and that’s why they have so many people. They’ll be like, ‘Hey! Um, blah blah blah, name,’ you know, they’ll mention a name, ‘is here’ – ‘oh, really?! I’m gonna come over there!’ Like, Somalis really love each other.
Obvious as it may be, as immigrants move from a particular region of the world, they bring such things as their language, culture, and culinary customs. The fact that, in addition, to family and friends, there are now Somali grocery and clothing stores, malls, restaurants and mosques in Minnesota, helps make it a more hospitable place for new immigrants.
How refugees from a particular country actually get to Minnesota involves a complex vetting process at the national and state level, as well as the support of state and local agencies. Minnesota has a strong tradition of “active volunteerism," which is not unconnected to the state's rich Lutheran history and its focus on service. This active volunteerism is evident in the high number of voluntary resettlement agencies (VOLAGs). When refugees settle in the US, they must have a sponsor to help with their transition to life in the US. VOLAGs often serve as the actual sponsors for refugees, and/or help individual groups (such as specific churches, mosques, temples or gurdwaras) connect with refugees to serve as sponsors or provide the support new immigrants need to find housing, acquire social services, enroll children in school, assist in language instruction, get driver's licenses, and navigate the complexities of moving to a new country. Some of the organizations operating to help refugees in Minnesota include the following:
- Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis
- Catholic Charities - Winona
- Church World Services
- Episcopal Migration Ministries
- Ethiopian Community Development Council
- Hebrew Immigration Aid Society
- International Rescue Committee
- International Institute of Minnesota
- Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis
- Lutheran Social Service
- Minnesota Council of Churches
- US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
- US Conference of Catholic Bishops
- Arrive Ministries
Notable from this list are the many VOLAGs that are faith-based organizations and attribute their commitment to supporting refugees and immigrants in general to their religious values. For example, Lutheran Social Service includes at the bottom of all of its website pages its mission statement, "Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota expresses the love of Christ for all people through service that inspires hope, changes lives, and builds community.” The theme is continued in their “About page” which states “our work is grounded in two principles – God loves all people without condition and God yearns for us to love the neighbor."1
Similar sentiments are evident on World Relief MN’s website. World Relief Minnesota defines itself as “a Christian non-profit agency dedicated to the Cause of the Refugee” and seeks to “empowe[r] local churches to serve the most vulnerable, i.e., newly arrived refugees.” On their page “Who do we serve,” the organization cites biblical passages for why they believe there is a “biblical mandate for serving and loving the refugee.” One of the passages cited Jesus speaking in the Book of Matthew, Chapter 25:
For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was in prison, and you came to me…Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.2
Among many of Minnesota religious communtities (Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, etc.) "welcoming the stranger" and fighting against the oppression of immigrants is not simply a nice value, but a religious and moral imperative.
Minnesota's Welcoming Policy
The ability of VOLAGs to help refugees is aided by individual states. The Minnesotan response to immigration has been characterized as generally rosy. The subtitle of a 2011 Economist article declared that Minnesota's relationship to refugees reflected, “a surge in immigration without the usual surge in concern."3 The author of the article also suggested that “Minnesota has largely avoided the backlash," which other states have seen towards immigration because most of Minnesota's immigrants are here legally, as opposed to those in other states. Such a depiction of the status, reception and experience of Minnesota's residents—immigrants and non-immigrant alike—is much too simplisitic and in recent year's backlashes against immigrants have manifest in rural, urban, and suburban environs, while, at the same time, Minnesota immigrants have also experienced ground-breaking successes. In the 2016 election, for example, the first Somali Muslim woman, Ilhan Omar, was elected to serve in the Minnesota State Legislature, representing Minneapolis House District 60B. Her landslide election, in the overwhelmingly democratic neighborhood, happened at the same moment as Donald Trump's election to the presidency. Two days before their victories, on November 6, 2016, Trump spoke to a large crowd in Minnesota, saying:
Here in Minnesota, you’ve seen firsthand the problems caused with faulty refugee vetting, with large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state without your knowledge, without your support or approval, and with some of them then joining ISIS and spreading their extremist views all over our country and all over the world.
These sentiments, which found enthusiastic supporters among some in the state, reveal the wide-range of perspectives about immigrants in Minnesota.
Still, the state's policies are generally supportive of immigration; since the 1980s, Minnesota has been a leader in refugee resettlement programs, and both Minneapolis and St. Paul have adopted numerous initiatives aimed at supporting newcomers. For instance, the Twin Cities are Sanctuary Cities.
Many of the projects included here seek to document the range of experiences and attitudes of both long-time residents and new immigrants as they navigate Minnesota's complex and changing landscape.
“About Us,” Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, accessed June 8, 2013, http://www.lssmn.org/About-Us/. ↩
“Who We Serve,” World Relief Minnesota, accessed June 8, 2013, http://www.worldreliefmn.org/about/who-we-serve/. (Mathews 25:35-36, 40). ↩
"Immigration: A Warmer Welcome in a Colder State,” The Economist, Jul. 7, 2011, accessed April 22, 2013. ↩