Dorcas Zirirane arrived at a “Life in Minnesota” class in St. Paul carrying her 1-year-old granddaughter on her back in a colorful cloth sling, speaking to her in Swahili. Zirirane was wearing a long skirt with a bold, vibrant pattern traditional to the Democratic Republic of Congo, from which she’d fled as a refugee.
But she’d already adapted her wardrobe to her new home. Zirirane raised the hem of her thin cotton skirt to reveal a pair of thick leggings.
Zirirane was one of about 20 students attending the International Institute of Minnesota’s eight-week cultural orientation class, which helps immigrants and temporary residents navigate myriad American systems — legal, education, health care — and more.
Instructor Sara Skinner also supplements the basic curriculum for refugees with skills specific to the state. Many are related to the cold: how to dress for winter, do the “penguin shuffle” when walking on ice, shovel snow correctly.
Others involve a more figurative cool: understanding Minnesotans’ reserve and interpreting the notorious “Minnesota Nice.”
This morning’s lesson was on health. Midway through it, Skinner stressed the importance of protecting your skin from the cold, dry air. “If you put Vaseline in your nose at night when you go to sleep that will help your nose not to bleed,” she offered.
The Swahili and Karenni interpreters did their best to translate a phrase that likely left those from warmer climes wondering what they were doing in this bone-chilling land of nasal-greasers.
Fear of freezing
The number of refugees coming to Minnesota has plummeted since President Donald Trump dramatically reduced the national cap on refugees (18,000 this year, down from 110,000 during Obama’s final year in office). Still, the state has a long tradition of welcoming newcomers and ranks high in its number of refugees resettled per capita.
Of the nearly 900 refugees who arrived in Minnesota in 2019, those from Myanmar were most numerous, followed by Democratic Republic of Congo and Ukraine. But a typical “Life in Minnesota” class includes students from countries all over the globe: China, Burundi, Rwanda and Portugal among them.
Helping new Americans achieve self-sufficiency remains a primary focus of the institute, which has resettled nearly 25,000 refugees in its centurylong history. It is one of five resettlement groups in the state.
Starting over from scratch isn’t easy, especially for those forced to flee their home countries, Skinner said. During the two years she’s volunteered with the International Institute, she’s been inspired by her students’ resilience and their efforts to integrate.
“They really want to understand how things work here and follow the rules and be a part of the culture and participate in American life,” she said.
But it can be difficult to participate in Minnesota life if you won’t leave your home for fear of freezing to death.
So during the class on health, Skinner passed around an assortment of her family’s winter clothing and offered tips (wool socks are warmer than cotton) and discussed the pros and cons of mittens vs. gloves. While Skinner bundled a volunteer model in the outerwear, one student from Ukraine introduced another from Somalia to a product she found essential: a pair of traction cleats strapped to her boots.
Skinner tossed packing peanuts on the floor and enlisted a student from Spain, who had come to Minnesota for his wife’s university research job, to demonstrate the basics of shoveling.
“It’s easier to push the snow than lift the snow,” she advised, warning the students about overexertion.
The morning’s lesson concluded with Skinner leading the class around the room in the penguin shuffle. The students mimicked Skinner as she took tiny steps while outstretching her arms for balance. The collective waddle seemed to reflect the ethos of the class: This may be tricky terrain, but we’re all in it together.
Decoding cultural norms
Recognizing that some refugees experience major culture shock (a student from Myanmar had never used a telephone), “Life in Minnesota” focuses largely on practicalities, including where to find affordable groceries and secondhand clothing and how to keep your hands on the steering wheel if you are pulled over by a police officer.
But a few weeks after the session on health, another class tackled more abstract social mores. The students played a game that asked questions about behavioral customs, such as making eye contact and punctuality. (The African students’ general sentiment — “so long as you get there, it’s OK” — elicited laughs.)
Skinner had the students practice introducing themselves to one another because, as a recent transplant from North Carolina, she recognized that they would likely bear the burden of initiating contact with locals.
“One of the things we talk about is that people in Minnesota are very kind, but they can be very reserved,” Skinner said.
She also told her students that Minnesotans’ ideas about physical contact and personal space might be markedly different from their own. A woman from Venezuela said she found it odd to reserve hugs and kisses only for close friends or family.
And Skinner garnered a few laughs when she demonstrated how standing too close to a Minnesotan during a conversation might make the person feel uncomfortable.
Skinner said some students mentioned instances where they struggled to interpret Minnesotans’ feelings. One woman from Chile was puzzled by a neighbor who acted friendly to her face — but then complained about her behind her back.
“So I had to explain about passive-aggressive and Minnesota Nice,” Skinner said.
Raisa Cassidy, a student who came to Minnesota from Ukraine four years ago, said she found that some people here have a habit of projecting positivity, even if it isn’t how they feel.
“American people may feel bad here,” she said, pointing to her heart, “but smile here,” she said, pantomiming a grin.