WASHINGTON – Minnesota has resettled two dozen Syrian refugees in the past year and continues to be among the nation’s top states for exile resettlement, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. State Department.
President Obama last year unveiled a Syrian resettlement program to help with a global migration crisis sparked by the country’s civil war. The United States resettled its 10,000th Syrian refugee last week.
In Minnesota, 25 Syrian refugees made homes in the past year, landing mostly in Rochester and Minneapolis. The state also took in almost 1,100 Somalis, 166 Ethiopians and 66 Congolese — a large increase from last year through August.
The anticipated wave of new refugees sparked a backlash as about half the nation’s governors expressed opposition to letting Syrian refugees into their states, concerned that government screenings have too few safeguards to stop terrorists from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from entering the country as refugees. Some members of Congress called for the United States to take in tens of thousands more Syrians to help ease the flow of desperate people into European countries.
Ben Walen at the Minnesota Council of Churches said some of the controversy surrounding refugees has actually added to the number of people who want to help them.
He now runs out of space to store goods for the new arrivals and has more than enough volunteers to help drive them to English classes or job interviews.
“The sentiment, the public sphere, social media, all of that which was very negative about refugees has more than been countered with positive reactions,” Walen said.
The refugee controversy has had undertones in the presidential race.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton supported Obama’s plan last year, but said the U.S. should accept as many as 65,000 refugees. A month later, after the ISIL attacks in Paris, Republican Donald Trump said allowing Syrian refugees into the country could throw open the doors to terrorists.
Trump later called for a blanket ban on Muslims entering the U.S.
All told, 2,335 refugees have settled in the state since last year — the most since 2007. Other trends include the arrival of a few refugees from El Salvador and an increase in the numbers of people coming from Iran and Iraq. Minnesota ranks 13th nationally for the number of refugees who call the state home.
For Laurie Ohmann, that means a “fast and furious” schedule as she works to find homes for the new arrivals.
Ohmann, a vice president of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said there is a constant struggle to find rental units in the tight Twin Cities market for people who have no credit record or history of renting. Sometimes they are placed as far away as Mankato or Faribault because it’s easier to find affordable apartments.
Ohmann has also seen an influx of “secondary migrants” from Somalia.
These are people who were resettled somewhere else, but seek out Minnesota to live because of existing populations.
“They are no different than the rest of us,” she said. “We want to live with people ... we can connect and talk [with].”
Up until last summer, Htoo Wah, a Karen refugee, was living in a camp in Thailand. He and his wife arrived in Minnesota last June and now have two babies. Wah, in an interview through a translator at the International Institute of Minnesota, called “everything good” except difficulty with transportation and language.
Wah lives in St. Paul and said he has friends because there are five others from the same refugee camp in his apartment building. He previously worked at a hotel and would like to find work in the Twin Cities doing the same thing once he masters English. He goes to English classes every day.
“I miss things, but I’m not intending to go back,” Wah said.