Fargo's newest pioneers

North Dakota as a haven for refugees? Diversity arrives, too quickly for some, at doorstep of a homogeneous state.

It's a city of blond homecoming queens, old-fashioned barbershops, and American Legion bingo nights. There's a Buster Keaton flick showing at the cinema, a 1964 Schwinn in the bike shop window, anti-abortion billboards at every other intersection, and churches in every neighborhood.

But look closely. Fargo, N.D., is also a study in an America that is changing.

A Vietnamese restaurant has popped up on Main Street. There's an Eastern European waitress at Bonnie's and a 'Middle Eastern' salad on the menu. The photo shop has pictures of an Indian wedding waiting to be picked up, the local schoolteacher knows to wish a studenthappy Ramadan, and the little gift store on Broadway has African tribal masks to go with your china tea set.

A decade ago, 95 percent of North Dakotans were white, Christian, and born in the state, according to the North Dakota data center at the state university. Today, with an aging population, an increasing number of natives moving away in search of better employment, and a small but continual influx of foreign-born newcomers, that percentage is 92.4.

A new start for everyone

Over the past 10 years, the Lutheran Social Services (LSS) of North Dakota has resettled in the state some 6,000 refugees from 15 countries: from Bosnians to Sudanese and from Iraqi Kurds to Somalis. These refugees, unlike immigrants, are invited to the US and given assistance in settling in their host community. Almost always, the newcomers are escaping dire circumstances in their homelands.

Some arrived with nothing but a plastic bag of clothes to call their own; others came claspingdegrees in law or medicine.The vast majority, say LSS caseworkers, quickly learned English and got jobs within eight months.

"Once we survived that first winter," says Thomas Taban, a Sudanese refugee who just graduated from college here, "we knew we could do anything."

North Dakota (population 642,200) is still one of the least diverse states in the nation. Blacks and Asians, for example, each respectively make up 0.6 of the population - as compared with 12.3 percent and 3.6 percent nationwide. But even the slight demographic change taking place is beginning to be noticeable, especially in the bigger cities of Fargo, Bismarck, and Grand Forks. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the name of Grand Forks, ND.]

Some old-timers don't like it, though. Kathy Thoreson, director of LSS's Center for New Americans, gets a few angry calls every month. There are complaints that the education level at schools is being dragged down, concerns that jobs are being "taken away" (in fact, North Dakota has only a 2 percent unemployment rate), and demands to know why Fargo can't invite refugees from Norway or Sweden, instead of from "all those strange places."

Misconceptions abound. Even Ms. Thoreson's own elderly father, she admits, recently confided in her that he just couldn't understand why people would not want to stay in their own countries.

"I could not speak a word of English when I arrived, and I always felt people were talking about me," recalls Ermina Delovac, a Bosnian refugee who is now a case manager at LSS. "Maybe they were."

Whether legitimate or not, the fears and sentiments of the community can't be ignored, say LSS staff. And so, over the past two years, they have severely cut back the numbers of those resettled in North Dakota. In 2001, some 600 refugees found homes here. Last year only 59 were picked up at the airport.

Nonetheless, resettlement workers still think that the community here, like those all over the country, is slowly recognizing the benefits an influx of refugees can bring, especially to states like North Dakota with declining populations and labor shortages. The resettlement agencies may have tried to push the process too much, too soon, they admit - but they believe the setback is temporary.

"There was negative press and lots of negative talk a few years back," says Ms. Delovac. "We overwhelmed the community, and there was a backlash. Of course 9/11 didn't help much either, with lots of frustration and anger mistakenly directed at the refugees." But, she stresses, "I do think there are a great many, an increasing many, people who are open and supportive of the resettlement process."

"When I was growing up, Catholics were the only 'other' we knew," says Heidi Heinen, a North Dakota native and a social worker with LSS. "It takes time. It all takes getting used to."

Many new 'pioneers' each year

Last week, President Bush signed the fiscal year 2004 presidential determination on refugee admissions - setting the target for admissions at 70,000. And while it is far from certain if that many will arrive (a quota of 70,000 was set last year, too, but only 28,422 actually came), it seems likely that numbers nationwide will mount. Thoreson says she expects Fargo to welcome 225 refugees in the coming year. "That's what we are budgeting for," she says. "That's what we pray for."

Many cities across America have begun actively trying to recruit refugees, says Brian Ray, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. "They see them as a key constituency which will revive the economy," he says. "And one of the hopes is that the refugees will be an anchor around which other immigrants will later come."

In general, there are approximately nine times as many immigrants - about 1 million - as refugees coming to the US yearly, and it is the immigrants who have a much greater effect on changing demographics. But immigrants, who settle where they please, tend to flock to larger cities, where there is already more diversity, both socially and economically. Refugees can be sent anywhere, and so often end up as pioneers and catalysts of diversification in the more rural states.

"Miles have been added onto Fargo," observes Anna Rieke, office coordinator for LSS. "Fargo used to end at the Wal-Mart and Sam's Club [stores] ... but now there is a whole new city out there, filled with newcomers."

If there is one thing the different refugee groups have in common, adds Sasha Chanoff, a longtime aid worker in Kenya and an expert on refugee issues, it is their eagerness to successfully restart their lives in their adopted country. "And this attitude brings life and vitalizes communities," he says.

Roosevelt Gaylah, his wife, Gladys, and their four children are the newest refugees in Fargo. They arrived four weeks ago. The Gaylahs are Liberians who had been living in a refugee camp in Ivory Coast. They were brought to America along with 800 others (7,000 more are expected in the coming months) as part of a rapid reaction program used in crises. Three families came to North Dakota. All three of them came with nothing.

"We had some cooking utensils in the refugee camp," says Mr. Gaylah. "But they were not suitable for America."

The couple wander barefoot around their new two-story house, timidly handling new cooking utensils, gently slapping the small TV with a grin, and generally looking rather baffled. "I had heard of New York and Chicago before," insists Gaylah. "But never Fargo. I never saw Fargo on the map." He thinks a moment. "But I love Fargo now. It's not too noisy."

He has confidence that he will get on well here. "America is the great country of freedom and equality," he recites. And, already, he has "personally" seen signs of this greatness. "I was at the mall," he explains. "And so many people came to try and talk to me because they liked to hear my accent," he says. "They liked it a lot."

Not every refugee has it so easy. There have been some minor incidents on school playgrounds. One Somali child was told to "go home" by classmates.

Refugees have a few complaints of their own. American culture is taking over their lives, some say. And there is no strong religious or ethnic community that they can feel at home with.

For the most part, though, the refugees are thrilled to be in their new home, even if it can be a bit perplexing.

Joe Muluban is a Liberian refugee who came to Fargo six years ago. These days, he's offering the newcomers advice. "I would say the most difficult thing about America is you need a license for everything," he says, holding court. "Take fishing. You need a license for fishing!"

The newly arrived Liberians shake their heads. Even Mr. Muluban seems to still find this incredulous. Any other pearls of wisdom? "Patience," he says. "God has blessed us and brought us here. So if it takes a little while for everyone else to feel blessed by that, that's OK, too."

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