Twin Cities World Refugee Day shines despite rain


A steady rain didn’t dampen the spirit at the Twin Cities World Refugee Day June 5 in downtown Minneapolis. Minnesota is home to some of the biggest refugee groups in the country and worldwide, including the largest Somali population in the U.S. and one of the largest Hmong communities on the planet, according to the American Refugee Committee. The human stories at the Twin Cities Word Refugee Day provided the sunshine on an otherwise rainy day. “Refugees have hopes, dreams, skills, and abilities and they know what is best for creating their own solutions,” said Pham Thi Hoa, whose organization, CAPI, helps serve refugees.

One Refugee Story

Phuoc Thi Minh Tran left her Saigon home, family, and friends in the early 1980s and spent 10 months in a Malaysian refugee camp. After landing in California, she took a long bus ride to settle in Minnesota.

“I got a Bachelor’s Degree in French Literature and Linguists from the Dominican/College of St. Catherine’s and a Master’s Degree of Library Information and Sciences from the University of Minnesota,” she said. “I am now the first Vietnamese librarian in Minnesota. I work at the Hennepin County and U of M libraries.”

A member of the Asian Storytellers Alliance, Tran also performed on stage and told a Vietnamese folktale about the legend of the mosquito. “Oh yes, we have mosquitoes in Vietnam,” she said.

Tran’s daughter, Thuy Duong Nguyen-Tran, graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Minnesota in May and will be entering medical school there. Nguyen-Tran and her younger sister danced in authentic Vietnamese ao dai costumes at the event as members of the Hoang Anh Dance Group.  Large red lotus flowers were part of their performance which represent love and passion, Tran said. “The lotus grows in mud, but grows up to be pure and noble.”

Refugees and Immigrants

All refugees are immigrants, but not all immigrants are refugees. As the Advocates for Human Rights website explains, a refugee must prove that he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution or has been persecuted in the past.

This means that the person must prove that they are truly afraid that they would be persecuted if they had to return to their country; and, that they have a good reason to be afraid.  So, the person applying for refugee status must prove that they fear they would be persecuted because of their race, religion, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, or national origin.

There are over 85,000 refugees in Minnesota. The top refugee nationalities in the state in 2006 were Hmong, with 21,844, Somali 15,704, Vietnamese 15,023, Soviet 8,294, Cambodian 4,983, Ethiopian 4,799, Liberian 3,481 and Bosnian 2,380. Others come from the countries of Burma, Bhutan, and Iraq.

Hoa explains that counting refugees is complicated. “[Some refugees] may not be counted here, as they are counted in California for the Department of Health and once they come [to Minnesota] they may not be counted again, but are counted as secondary refugees,” said Pham. “After the fifth year, they are not considered eligible for funding purposes.”

Minnesota also has one of the highest secondary migration rates, meaning refugees resettled elsewhere in the U.S. and then move to Minnesota more often than to almost any other state.

American Refugee Committee

The American Refugee Committee, an international humanitarian aid agency, has its world headquarters in Minneapolis on Oak Grove Street near Loring Park. ARC was founded in 1979 by Neal Ball of Chicago. His first employee was from Minneapolis, so he designated the city as its world headquarters, said ARC Public Affairs Manager Therese Gales.

“His story is a compelling one,” said Gales. “When Ball first sponsored a refugee, he just sent checks to him. Then he got a phone call saying ‘the refugee you sponsored is at the [Chicago] O’Hare airport.’ He was from Laos. Over time, his family wanted to join him here, but they were denied at the border for health reasons.” So Ball did the next best thing: he created his own border medical team and his mission grew from those grass roots beginnings to the global American Refugee Committee with 1,800 staff, 96 percent of whom are refugees.

ARC said on their website that most of the time, refugees must flee their home and villages without warning, taking with them only the clothes on their backs. The majority of refugees (80 percent) are women and children. Men in wartime are frequently forced to fight, or are killed during the unrest.

Center for Victims of Torture

A significant proportion of refugees have experienced severe trauma. Many have been tortured, separated from their families, and subjected to personal and/or sexual violence. The Minneapolis-based Center for Victims of Torture helps many refugees who survive torture.

Ben Kohler, a volunteer at the Center for 10 years, drives CVT clients to counseling or doctor appointments. He also tutors clients. Right now, he said, the Center is gathering stories of victims.

“It’s for the Center to have as part of their history,” Kohler explained. “We got 40 stories so far. Most of the story gathering is done by staff. It’s harder for volunteers to get the violent stories. Their therapist has to get a client ready to talk, they are protective.”

Many clients go into human rights work, he said. The story gathering of torture victims is being done worldwide, as well as in Minnesota.

Helping Refugee Resettlement

Sixty organizations participated in the World Refugee Day’s Community Resource Fair providing give-aways and information on their services. Some of the agencies at the Festival were EMERGE Workforce, a refugee employment network, the Hennepin County Office of Multi-Cultural Services that helps refugees connect to county services, and the International Institute of Minnesota which serves people in transition.

World Refugee Day began in 2000 by the United Nations as an expression of solidarity with Africa. The UN established June 20 as World Refugee Day to coincide with Africa Refugee Day. The Twin Cities World Refugee Day is the local event.

A Global Bazaar was held in the adjacent International Education Center on Hennepin Avenue. The IEC serves the refugee and immigration communities by providing accredited English as a Second Language instruction to international residents. Their student body represents 75 countries and 35 languages, said IEC communication director Steve Hall.

Hassan Omar Yusuf greeted people as they entered the Bazaar. Yusuf said he came to the Twin Cities 11 years ago. He is also a student at the IEC. Yusuf, 47, said he has adapted to the colder climate of the Midwest. “I have come to love snow, it is my favorite kind. Before the United States, I had never seen snow.”

This year, the Twin Cities World Refugee Day was held in conjunction with the Minneapolis MOSAIC, a festival of arts celebrating cultural diversity presented by the City of Minneapolis. “Refugees are a big part of the diversity in the Twin Cities, so it made sense to merge,” said Gales.The two events had more than 40 free performances.

(Above) Two members of the Hoang Anh Vietnam Dance Group practice before going on stage at the Twin Cities World Refugee Day June 5.Thuy Duong Nguyen-Tran, background, received her BA from the U of M in May and will be attending medical school there. Photo by Barb Teed.

(Above) the Hoang Anh Vietnam Dance Group with their Red Lotus flowers, part of their performance. Photo by Barb Teed.

(Above) The littlest members of the Hoang Anh Vietnam Dance Group. The dancers wore authentic Vietnamese ao dai costumes. Photo by Barb Teed.

(Above) Storyteller Phuoc Thi Minh Tran, a refugee from Saigon, is now Minnesota’s first Vietnamese librarian and holds both a BA and an MA. Photo by Barb Teed.

(Above) Members of the Waddhanak of Minnesota Cambodian Buddhist Society get ready for their performance at the Twin Cities World Refugee Day. Photo by Barb Teed.

(Above) It took many hands to apply the ceremonial hat on a dancer with the Waddhanak of Minnesota Cambodian Buddhist Society. Photo by Barb Teed.

(Above) Success! After many attempts, the hat was ready for dancing. Photo by Barb Teed.

(Above) The Hmong Qeej Players & Dancers performed at the Twin Cities World Refugee Day June 5. Photo by Barb Teed.

(Above) A Global Bazaar was held at the International Education Center in conjunction with the Twin Cities World Refugee Day in Minneapolis. Photo by Barb Teed.

(Above) Shoes for sale at the Global Bazaar at the International Education Center. Photo by Barb Teed.

(Above) Henna art at the Global Bazaar. Photo by Barb Teed.

(Above) Two of the Twin Cities World Refugee Day organizers Therese Gales (left) and Pham Thi Hoa. “Refugees are a big part of the diversity in the Twin Cities,” said Gales. Photo by Barb Teed.