Sitting behind the reception desk at the International Institute of Minnesota (IIM), Hibo Khalaf displays both poise and professionalism. However, it was not too long ago she stood on the other side of the desk. When her family first arrived here as refugees five years ago, they needed IIM to help with their adjustment to American life. Now as Independence Day looms, Khalaf feels a stronger connection to her adopted homeland. Any day now, she will be sworn in as a US citizen.
Although Khalaf was only nine when her family fled war torn Somalia, she still has vivid memories of the fighting in her homeland. Khalaf cringes when recalling the horrors she experienced as a child.
“I get some flashbacks. They’re kind of gruesome…the gun shots, running for our lives,” Khalaf said.
The third oldest of ten children, Khalaf and her parents and siblings all made it to a refugee camp in Kenya. However, Khalaf had such a severe allergic reaction to the dust in the camp her health was in jeopardy. Fortunately, one aunt had settled in Mombasa, Kenya several years before; she invited Khalaf to live with her. That arrangement afforded Khalaf the opportunity to attend school and become proficient in English.
Khalaf’s family was finally able to leave Kenya when she was 22 years old. Her parents moved the entire family to the United States. That is, all but one; her oldest brother was separated from them in transition.
“We lost one brother before we came here. We don’t know where he is,” Khalaf said.
When Khalaf’s family arrived in Minnesota in 2004, they needed help navigating the bureaucratic maze of services. Like many immigrants and refugees, they turned to the International Institute of Minnesota.
Located near the Fairgrounds at 1694 Como Avenue, IIM is perhaps most known for hosting the Festival of Nations each year in downtown Saint Paul. However, their primary purpose since 1919 is to aid in the transition of immigrants and refugees into American society. Services such as the Refugee Resettlement Program, Mentoring Program and Education/Employment Services lessen the complexities of relocating to another country.
“We want to help refuges and immigrants find jobs,” said Vicki McKenna, Director of Development and Operations. Hibo is an example of some of our clients. We are often the first step.”
The programs at IIM were paramount in helping Khalaf’s family settle in Minnesota. With their assistance, Khalaf earned her GED and secured employment. Now she is taking classes at St. Paul Community and Technical College. Khalaf is hoping to pursue a career in either public health or midwifery.
Khalaf also utilized IIM’s services to complete the citizenship process. “Coralene [the citizenship counselor] helped me fill out citizenship papers,” Khalaf said. “They’re all like a family to me.”
On June 25, Khalaf successfully passed the INS citizenship interview. The final step is the swearing in ceremony for which she will be notified shortly. Khalaf’s face lights up like a sparkler when talking about becoming a citizen.
“I’m not a citizen yet…I’m a citizen-in-waiting,” Khalaf said. “Sometimes, you just want to belong.”
Deb Pleasants worked as a probation officer for 15 years prior to becoming a stay-at-home-mom. In addition to caring for her son, she is a freelance writer and citizen journalist. She resides in St. Paul with her family.
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