Opinion editor's note: Star Tribune Opinion publishes a mix of national and local commentaries online and in print each day. (To contribute, click here.) This article is a response to Star Tribune Opinion's June 4 call for submissions on the question: "Where does Minnesota go from here?" Read the full collection of responses here.
Minnesota has a legacy of welcoming refugees. And true to that tradition, Minnesotans were the first to welcome refugee families under the new national Welcome Corps program.
I'm not surprised that Minnesota is leading the way nationally in welcoming refugees, and you shouldn't be either. But what may surprise is that these debut groups of welcomers aren't from the Twin Cities.
Last month, on World Refugee Day, two groups of private sponsors in Worthington and Moorhead welcomed the first refugees to arrive in the United States through the Welcome Corps. They were a three-generation Congolese family and a single individual from Ethiopia. After months of preparation, groups of volunteers arrived at the nearest major airport — one in Sioux Falls and the other in Fargo — to provide a warm welcome and a ride to the refugees' first homes in the United States.
Going forward, these groups will help the newcomers find employment, prepare for Minnesota winters and settle into America's Heartland with the renewed promise of opportunity.
For more than 40 years, the U.S. Department of State has partnered primarily with nonprofit resettlement agencies to provide initial assistance to newly arriving refugees. Earlier this year, the department launched the Welcome Corps, a new service opportunity administered by a nonprofit consortium led by my organization, the Community Sponsorship Hub, making it possible for people across the country to welcome and resettle refugees themselves, including those in rural areas located outside the reach of traditional resettlement agencies.
Resettlement experts provide training, resources and ongoing guidance to groups throughout the sponsorship period. Locally, that expert is Alight, a global humanitarian nonprofit guiding welcomers from its Minneapolis headquarters.
This new opportunity comes at a time of increasing global displacement. With ongoing crises in places like Sudan and Ukraine, a record high 110 million people have been forced from their homes, their communities and the futures they had planned for.
Having worked in the humanitarian space for more than 10 years, I now see a clear, modern and sustainable plan for how our nation responds to this crisis and expands our capacity to resettle more refugee families nationwide.
During the previous administration, our resettlement system was decimated. In 2020, the annual refugee resettlement cap was just 15,000, the lowest in American history and roughly 55,000 fewer than that set by the Obama administration. Federal funding for resettlement agencies was slashed, and many organizations were forced to close or significantly reduce staff, resulting in increased backlogs and leaving refugee families waiting even longer for a safe place to call home.
In 2021, 80,000 Afghans were evacuated after the Taliban took control of Kabul. Then, too soon after, more than 271,000 Ukrainians fled to the United States after the Russian invasion. These humanitarian crises further strained resettlement resources, but Americans of all backgrounds — religious and nonreligious, urban and rural and on both sides of the aisle — were eager to step up.
It was a transformative moment in our country's tradition of welcome, and I witnessed so many Minnesotans coordinate airport greetings, set up homes and ensure their new neighbors felt welcomed. The Welcome Corps builds on this national effort and puts sponsorship in the hands of Americans.
When communities create conditions for refugee families to integrate and flourish, residents in both cities and small towns experience long-term benefits to their economy and workforce. And with the ongoing urban-rural divide, I'm proud to see smaller Minnesota communities stepping up in a big way.
Our state is home to two of the largest diasporas, in the Somali and Hmong communities, strengthening the social fabric of the Twin Cities and beyond. This new moment will shape Minnesota's traditions for generations to come. I would love to see the Twin Cities join our rural neighbors and the Welcome Corps in meeting the needs of this global challenge.
We are 17 months from the next national election, a time when divisions and tensions loom large. But a warm welcome for a stranger is where all Minnesotans can shine. Minnesota can be the gold standard for the nation and show what it means to strengthen our communities — rural and urban — through welcoming. I'm so proud of our neighbors in Moorhead and Worthington for leading the way. Who's next?
Annie Nolte-Henning, of Minneapolis, is interim executive director of Community Sponsorship Hub, a nonprofit consortium implementing the Welcome Corps.