I have muddled through the stages of grief on the refugee resettlement vote in Beltrami County, Minn. (“Beltrami County prohibits refugees; others table vote,” front page, Jan. 8, and “Behind Beltrami’s ‘no,’ ” Jan. 12.) My heart is heavy, and I am sad. The County Board made a mistake in rushing this vote through. A storm of 150 out of 48,000 residents was brewing, so they forced the vote without a public comment period.
Many disrespectful things have been said about the passionate citizens in the photos taken at the meeting. One observation I made is that the vibe in that chamber did not scream “social media aficionados.” I get it. I generally find social media a toxic waste of my time. Yet it affects our society, like it or not. Disinformation abounds. It’s our duty as citizens to vet the news carefully. I would beg anyone in that chamber who found themselves impassioned to this issue through a social media post to go back and vet that information.
We Bemidji business owners have a unique perspective into the pulse of our community. When there’s buzz around town, we absorb it. Rumors evolve. This one started with the “claim” that “liberals” were “scheming” to “profit” by bringing 200 refugees to town. Soon it was 2,000 Syrians. If true, Beltrami residents would be justifiably concerned. But we have not had a refugee resettlement here in 20 years. We should be so lucky to have a few young, energetic families choosing to rebuild their futures in our tundra-adjacent paradise. Frankly, this headline is the result of a nasty disinformation campaign. The provocative posts have vanished. Anyone who I hoped might want to vet those posts is no longer able. Russian President Vladimir Putin would be proud.
As the daughter of World War II refugees, it’s difficult not to take this vote as a personal affront. Growing up, I was mocked as a Nazi and a commie, despite the fact that my folks had been separated from their families, survived on cats and crow soup, escaped from the concentration camp Molidorf, endured unspeakable physical and emotional violence, begged for their lives and endeared compassionate neighbors to aid in their escape. Mom’s parents were so emaciated that they did not recognize each other when my grandfather returned from the Russian front. They vomited on the boat to America for weeks straight — then worked their tails off to build better lives for their kids. Dad worked six to seven days a week his whole life; at 83, he barely admits to “semiretirement” due to a fall. They sacrificed comforts to send us to the best schools and lessons — anything to ensure our futures were less burdensome than their pasts.
If you’ve never known a refugee, that is the most important lesson. A refugee’s No. 1 goal is building a better future, no matter their race, creed or past. In the Beltrami County meeting last week, when asked for a show of hands against resettlement, there were many. I wonder, had that been followed up with the question of who in the room ever knew a refugee, how many would have raised their hands?
Sadly, we now look like an unwelcoming mob. Fiscal responsibility is a concern, but given the zero percent chance that we were actually going to relocate a number of refugees, the impression is left that we’d rather steer clear of multicultural influence. That impression has reverberated statewide and beyond, with observers vowing to cancel their vacations here. It’s a concerning notion to those of us who rely on tourism to survive.
Politics are complex, and the ability of the press to accurately portray what has happened here is limited and takes time. Don’t let those limitations cloud the fact that great things and great people happen here! The fact is, Bemidji is loaded with beautiful, loving, open-minded people of all backgrounds. I relocated here from a big city and there is no place I’d rather be. We who live, work and raise our families here are kind, generous, creative, hardworking, dedicated and resourceful people, committed to supporting our community in many lovely ways. We all value our sense of place and our great outdoors. Our downtown is vibrant and growing. We’re eager to offer our expertise for your enjoyment. As this story evolves, the entrepreneurs of Bemidji are here at work, ready to welcome and serve you, whoever you are.
Monika Schneider, of Bemidji, Minn., is a business owner/operator.