Finding refuge in St. Cloud

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 19, 2011 - 6:33 AM

A new office helps resettle a fresh wave of immigrants from Somalia and Iraq.

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After arriving in Willmar from St. Cloud by car Abdi Aden Mahamed 28, left Ali Hamdi Muhumed 22, and Yusuf Abdi 23 waited to fill out job applications at the Jennie-O processing plant.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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ST. CLOUD - The basement apartment on the edge of St. Cloud State University's campus isn't much to look at, but to Roble Hussein, it's guri, or "home."

Three months ago, he lived in a refugee camp halfway across the globe, surviving on one meal a day.

He left his wife and five children to find work and peace in America.

Now, with the help of a new refugee resettlement office in St. Cloud, the Somali native's dreams have come true. Almost.

Hussein is among about 100 refugees from Somalia and Iraq recently transplanted to the St. Cloud area with assistance from a new branch office of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota -- one of five designated refugee resettlement agencies in Minnesota.

Over the next two years, LSS's St. Cloud office will help resettle 200 more people fleeing violence in Somalia and Iraq.

That St. Cloud was chosen as a destination for the new arrivals has raised questions among immigration supporters and foes alike.

Lutheran Social Service opened the suboffice last year, within months of several incidents that highlighted the tension simmering between longtime St. Cloud residents and Somali immigrants. Among them: A Somali store owner's business was vandalized with the words "Go home," spray-painted in large red letters, windows were broken at a local mosque, and the U.S. Department of Education launched an investigation into claims that Somali students routinely faced discrimination and bullying in school because of their culture and Muslim religion.

Others wonder whether the St. Cloud area can support more refugees, especially ones who are brand-new to the country and need the most help getting established.

"For LSS, it's a natural offshoot," said Jennifer Jimenez-Wheatley, who runs the LSS branch office in St. Cloud. "There's been a great reception to receiving refugees here. Obviously, there are challenges that people raise. One is whether we have the capacity to do this."

Refugees have been choosing to make St. Cloud their home for many years.

To this day there is a thriving Vietnamese-American community in the area, dating from the resettlement of refugees after the Vietnam War.

Somali refugees began arriving about a decade ago, Jimenez-Wheatley said. They came on their own from other states and cities, attracted by the abundant supply of low-skill jobs at manufacturing and meat-packing plants such as Jennie-O Turkey in nearby Melrose, Gold'n Plump Chicken in Cold Spring and Electrolux, right in St. Cloud.

"It started the natural process of growing their roots here," Jimenez-Wheatley said.

Estimates of Somali immigrants living in the St. Cloud area vary, but Jimenez-Wheatley said the number ranges from 6,000 to 7,000.

Lutheran Social Service was one of several agencies that noticed the growing population in St. Cloud and spearheaded a refugee advisory committee to discuss efforts to integrate the new arrivals into society. In the first year of its resettlement program here, its branch office has received 112 refugees -- 103 people from Somalia and nine from Iraq.

"I'm not saying it's been rosy all the time," Jimenez-Wheatley said. "There are instances obviously with the changing demographics, you have some racial conflict that arises. But at the same time, it's been generally good. Just the community rallying around it."

America 101

For Jimenez-Wheatley, there is no time to waste once LSS's national office sends word that a refugee is on the way.

She must secure an apartment before heading to the airport so the new arrival has somewhere to go. There are groceries and cooking utensils and fresh linens to buy.

"One funny thing about refugee resettlement is that the State Department requires that they have a warm meal upon arriving," said Kim Dettmer, director of refugee services for the main LSS office in Minneapolis. For that, Jimenez-Wheatley turns to the Somali Café in St. Cloud, which prepares a welcoming meal to be delivered to the apartment.

From the moment the refugees arrive, the clock is running.

"We have a tight deadline. The State Department defines refugee resettlement period as 30 days. It used to be 90 days and even 180 days. A lot of the cases we extend to another two months," Dettmer explained.

Jimenez-Wheatley shuttles her clients around, to the doctor's office for a health screening and to enroll their children in school. She teaches them how to ride city buses so they can go to English language classes. Five days a week, they must go to the classes.

At Hands Across the World, a nonprofit center that teaches English and America 101 lessons, the halls are filled with people from around the globe.

Several of LSS's refugees are in the beginner's English class. On a recent morning, they studied the days of the month and days of the week so they can use their calendars to keep appointments.

In one exercise they arranged themselves at the front of the classroom, each one holding a sign with a month's name. They lined up in the correct order, January to December, earning a satisfied smile from their teacher.

Like other immigrant groups before them, learning the language will be key to their longterm success.

But for now, a more immediate concern has emerged: a lack of jobs.

Bleak job market

Mohamed Hassan Yusuf knows firsthand what his clients are facing.

The program manager for LSS's refugee employment services office in St. Cloud, he came to the city a decade ago directly from the refugee camps in Kenya after fleeing Somalia.

Yusuf said it was hard to get to know this new, strange place, but jobs were plentiful and the people welcoming.

The nation's slow economic recovery has led to a dearth of jobs in St. Cloud.

The result: stiff competition for the low-skilled jobs that traditionally have been snapped up by new immigrants.

Roble Hussein says he's filled out many applications and still is unemployed.

"Everyday, I say I don't have a job. What happened?" he said, speaking through a translator.

Two of his roommates, who came to St. Cloud when he did, recently left. They went to Pelican Rapids, about two hours north, to take jobs in a meat-packing plant.

In the meantime, he has acquired three more roommates -- a young Somali family.

Though frustrated by his lack of job prospects, he remains grateful and optimistic about his new life in America.

"America is a good country," Hussein said.

The bleak job market vexes Yusuf, too. When asked whether St. Cloud was a good place to bring new refugees, he did not hesitate to answer.

"For the jobs, no," he said. "Sometimes, no matter how good you plan, things may change in the other direction."

But for all other amenities, St. Cloud is a good home, he said. The city has strong schools, safe neighborhoods, a vibrant Somali immigrant community for support and networking, and in general, a supportive larger community.

"It's a great place to raise kids," Yusuf said.

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488

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