A new wave of refugees arrive in Minnesota

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Ghana, 26, and his brothers Siva, 19, and Tika, 18, represent a new wave of Minnesota immigrants. They and their family are Bhutanese and when they arrived in St. Paul this fall, they had no relatives here to rely on for help.

In the immigration vernacular, they are called “free” refugees, or those with no U.S. ties.

Historically, Minnesota has welcomed refugees. For many years, the state focused on refugee family reunification cases. Somali, Hmong, Ethiopian or Liberian refugees would come and have an immediate support system from extended family who had already been resettled here. The federal government has clamped down on family reunification cases due to fraud concerns in African counties. That greatly slowed the flow of refugees to Minnesota and opened capacity for more free cases, such as families from Bhutan and Burma.

How to help

Refugee resettlement is a public-private partnership, but resettlement organizations such as LSS are facing more pressure to come up with resources. It currently gets a grant of $900 per refugee, with half going to the refugee family directly.

Dettmer said it costs around $5,000 to $6,000 to resettle refugees. The $900 “doesn’t last long,” she said.

For more information or to volunteer with new refugees, contact one of the states five voluntary refugee resettlement organizations listed on the Minnesota Department of Health’s web site.

Without family ties, these refugees need extra support. Volunteers will need to help them learn the ropes, everything from finding housing and transportation to teaching them where to shop for groceries. Some refugees will need help enrolling children in school. 

When interviewed in the refugee camp about relocation, Ghana’s family knew of no relatives in the United States. They just wanted to go somewhere nice and safe, he said. They learned one week before their departure that they would go to Minnesota. They had never heard of Minnesota. Others in the camp told them it was cold here, and that they wouldn’t go outside their house for six months of the year.

The family-mom, dad, an aunt and five children-got on a plane at the refugee camp and flew to Delhi, then Brussels, New York, Chicago, and then Minnesota.

There were difficult times early, even the basics like finding the right kind of flour, tea and “cord,” the Nepali word for yogurt. Those were the small things.

The family had lived in a Nepalese refugee camp for 18 years. Life was pretty basic there. The camp had no electricity. Home and furniture were made of bamboo (they were not allowed to use better building materials.) Each person got a food allotment that included about 11 pounds of rice every 15 days, and other staples: oil, peanuts and salt.

One thing they did have in the camp was community. “When we were in Nepal, we are used to going to one house and talk to them, go to the next house and talk to them, make a friend,” Ghana said. “Here, it is difficult for us.”

The family recently found a cousin in Arlington. Tika, Siva and Ghana all are pursuing education. Ghana taught math and other subjects in the refugee camp and hopes to become a high school teacher: “Our life will be better here than in Nepal,” he said.

Numbers down, but volunteers still needed

Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota (LSS), one of five volunteer refugee resettlement agencies in the state, is helping to resettle Ghana’s family. Kim Dettmer, director of refugee services, set up and helped with the interview. (Ghana’s English was good, but Dettmer was familiar with the family situation and helped answer questions. She requested only first names be used, to avoid any potential backlash.)

To address the needs of this new wave of refugees, Dettmer said LSS again is reaching out for congregation support the way it did decades ago when Southeast Asian refugees first came to the state. It is also recruiting “Circle of Friends” groups, which allow a number of people to partner to support one family. A Circle of Friends group is helping Ghana’s family.

Minnesota’s refugee picture is changing in the wake of the federal government’s decision to crack down on family reunification cases. According to state data, Minnesota received 21,273 refugees between Oct. 1, 2003 and Sept. 30, 2008, or an average of 4,255 a year. In the following year, Minnesota received 993 refugees, a 77 percent drop.

Dettmer said LSS put in a request to resettle 75 free cases in the current fiscal year, a move she called aggressive. Without local family members, LSS and other agencies have to recruit more volunteers and do more upfront and follow-up support to help families.

Why Burma and Bhutan?

Ghana’s family lived in Bhutan, but were part of the ethnic Nepali minority. They have different dress and speak a different language that the Bhutan majority. And they are Hindu, not Buddhist like the majority. As LSS’s Kim Dettmer explained, Bhutan is very insular and about 20 years ago, the Bhutanese government decided everyone should wear the same dress, speak the national language and have one religion.

Ghana was about eight when his family left. They had thrived in Bhutan, with land and a fishery, he said. Then the government started burning Nepali books, schools, and homes. The family was given a date to leave.

Minnesota received its first Bhutanese refugee in early 2008. In the year ending September 30, Minnesota received 105 Bhutanese, or more than 10 percent of the state’s total refugees for the year.

The U.S. State Department web site said Bhutan recently made the transition to a parliamentary democracy. That improved the human rights situation considerably, it said, but, “there were continued difficulties with the regulation of religion, and some discrimination against the ethnic Nepalese minority.”

The repressive Burmese government has received a fair amount of international press because of its handling of Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights. Former First Lady Laura Bush continues to take up the plight of the Burmese.

Dettmer said the Burmese government has oppressed various ethnic groups, including the Karen, who have fought for independence since 1949.

In the year that ended September 30, 365 Burmese refugees came to Minnesota, or 37 percent of the state’s total, state data says.