We see the images in the media: people sometimes halfway across the world in desperate situations, fleeing their homes because of war, famine or natural disasters. Not since World War II has there been such a large number of people displaced from their homes, stranded in camps or placed in countries where they don’t know the language or culture and find themselves facing a whole new set of challenges.

The desire to help with the global refugee crisis is palpable, but knowing how to help can be daunting. Displaced people are often far away, and many different organizations are aimed at providing help. Becoming informed about the issue, and the many arms at work to help refugees, is the first step.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees clearly outlines the staggering numbers of the current world refugee crisis: 65.6 million displaced people worldwide, of whom 22.5 million are refugees, 10 million are “stateless” and 189,300 are resettled.

The state of Minnesota also provides information about refugee populations in the Twin Cities and in places like St. Cloud and Rochester. You can connect with resettlement agencies (see sidebar) that provide support to refugees remaking their lives here.

“We are at the forefront of what’s happening, just as a source of information,” said Jane Graupman, executive director of the International Institute of Minnesota (IIMN). “We are willing to educate about what the facts are.”

Graupman adds that far from being a burden, refugees coming into the United States end up contributing to the economy. According to the New York Times, a draft report from the Department of Health and Human Services this year found that refugees brought in $63 billion more in government revenues in a decade than they cost. “Immigrants have always been a part of our economic engine here,” Graupman said.


Another option is to interact with refugee communities themselves. “One challenge with dealing with the refugee crisis is that it is so vast,” said Michele Garnett McKenzie, advocacy director for Minneapolis-based Advocates for Human Rights. “No amount of philanthropy can solve it, so it makes it hard to think you should chip in.” Garnett Mc­Kenzie suggests volunteering as a first step. “Through volunteering you are getting to know refugees,” she said. “You get to know why you are giving.”

You might volunteer to mentor a newly arrived family, or help with driving to medical appointments. IIMN volunteers sometimes make lunch for young immigrant students. It’s a chance for new Americans to get to know local folks, Graupman said. “People in the [refugee] community are really scared. [Anti-refugee rhetoric] really scares people, so we need to have a community that is trying to reach out and reassure people.”

You might also consider an arts event that offers a window into the refugee experience, like the “I Am Somali” exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, or you could attend the Somali Museum in Minneapolis or the Karen Organization of Minnesota for one of its Culture Presentations. Or you might frequent a refugee-owned business, such as the Red Sea restaurant and bar in Minneapolis. “Refugees here are the biggest sources of support for refugees in camps,” Graupman said.

Graupman said people can also donate to housing initiatives in Minnesota that cater to refugee and immigrant groups.

Refugees especially need help from volunteers with legal expertise, in Minnesota with the Immigrant Law Center or Advocates for Human Rights, and with international organizations.

Tightening numbers

Betsy Fisher, policy director for the International Refugee Assistance Project, says only about 1 percent of refugees globally are even considered for resettlement — and the situation is looking even more dire. The Trump administration has announced that it would cap the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. in the next year at 45,000, down dramatically from the Obama administration’s proposal of 110,000. “That reality means that there are tens of thousands of refugees that are somewhere in the pipeline to come to the United States who are now in indefinite limbo,” Fisher said.

With such a backlog of cases, displaced populations are staying in refugee camps for much longer periods. “Instead of just a few months as it often was in the past, when they left until the fighting subsided and then were able to return, now the fact is that refugees remain refugees for on average probably a decade or more,” said Curt Goering, executive director for the St. Paul-based Center for Victims of Torture, which serves refugees and others who have survived violence.

The prolonged stays are putting a strain on host countries, such as Jordan. “Schools have to run two shifts, or three shifts. The health system is overburdened, the rents have skyrocketed in certain places,” Goering said.

Going local

The Center for Victims of Torture and the International Rescue Committee work directly with people in refugee camps, as does Madre, an international group that focuses its work on women.

Madre partners with grass-roots women’s organizations operating with conflicts, disasters and their aftermaths. Those local groups “have the clearest understanding of the social and political contexts and tend to be the organizations that have the most physical access to those in need,” said Cassandra Atlas, executive director of Madre.

In humanitarian crises such as those in Iraq or Syria, “there comes a certain point where conflict escalates or a situation becomes too dangerous, [and] even those large international organizations pull their staff out of those scenarios,” Atlas said. “And when the international community goes away — who is left? It’s the local women’s organizations that continue to organize on the ground and continue to mobilize humanitarian aid.”


Mohamed Idris, executive director of the Columbia Heights-based American Relief Agency for the Horn of Africa (ARAHA), says the organization is focused in part on building resilience and preventing refugee situations. “Once a person becomes a refugee, their needs become a lot,” Idris said. “This person is uprooted from their livelihood, and becomes dependent on aid. The best way to help refugees is to not make them refugees in the first place.”

Nongovernmental organizations like Save the Children and Oxfam publish data about communities at high risk for developing a refugee crisis. That helps ARAHA to provide those places with resources like water harvesting or education. “When a new conflict happens, people forget the last one. The problems are not getting solved, and the burden is getting larger,” Idris said.

Minneapolis-based Global Rights for Women (GRW) is also focused on ways to prevent refugee situations. Because refugees are often fleeing places where their human rights are at risk, GRW provides support to bring stability and legal protections for women around the world.

For GRW Executive Director Cheryl Thomas, Minnesota is well poised to be part of the solution. With so many globally connected organizations based in the state, “We are unique in this way,” she said. “The world is connected, and Minnesota has a role in it. Our capacity as far as knowledge and expertise to make changes in the world is great.”