When Mary Alessio gave a speech at the Kiwanis Club in Rochester last summer, she was shaken when she looked out at her audience and saw dozens of men who looked exactly like her father – row upon row of her father, one father per seat.
“My father’s a tough critic,” Alessio recalls, “and here I was giving a talk to a whole room filled with him.”
To make matters worse for her, Alessio was speaking that day about a topic she knew her father would ask some very demanding questions about – the resettlement of refugees from the world’s most troubled war zones to here in Rochester, Minnesota.
Alessio knows a lot about the subject because she is Director of Refugee Resettlement in Rochester for Catholic Charities, the not-for-profit agency that has resettled thousands of refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq and other countries gutted by violence, war and famine over the years to this town.
Sure enough, when the Q & A started, one of her fathers out in the audience immediately raised his hand and fired away.
“We have enough problems taking care of people right here in the United States,” he demanded. “Why don’t we focus on solving that instead of taking in all these new people for a short time and then just dropping them?”
There’s no surefire answer to that question, as Alessio has discovered over the past five years, first as a case worker and then leading the agency in its basic daily work of guiding new refugee arrivals through a jam-packed 90-to-180 day resettlement process.
During that time, each new arrival is introduced to the network of city, state and national agencies with programs to help them. Office visits are made to the local government center, the Olmsted County Public Health Services, the Rochester Public Library, to school offices for language testing, and so on.
But Alessio and her agency’s other case workers are known for taking their jobs a step beyond this required checklist of duties.
One time, Alessio was driving by Miracle Computers on 37th Street NE and on an impulse, she stopped and went in. She told the startled company owner about a newly-arrived Iraqi refugee who was terrific at fixing computers and lined up a job interview for him on the spot. The young Iraqi got the job and he still has it.
According to the 2000 Census, about 9,800 residents or eight percent of the population of Olmsted County was not born in the United States, a number that includes not only refugees but also immigrants who come to the city for employment, and to be reunified with families who arrived here earlier.
Eight percent is three percentage points higher than Minnesota as a whole, where about five percent of the population is foreign-born.
In her two and a half years as director of refugee resettlement in Rochester, Alessio has been a leading advocate for the city opening its arms to refugees, often the most vulnerable of all immigrants who arrive in this country.
“What if by the grace of God we weren’t born in Minnesota?” she asks. “I’ve never lived through a depression or a war, but if the situation was reversed and I was reaching out, I would hope that someone would look at me and welcome me.”
The presentations she makes to local groups are usually geared to answering the most basic questions about refugees such as “Why does Rochester host so many refugees from problem spots around the world?”
Although she’d be the last one to say so, one answer to that question is Alessio herself.
Under her leadership, Catholic Charities convinced the U.S. State Department that Rochester could accept more Iraq war refugees per capita than any other city in Minnesota. As a result, about 75 Iraqi refugees permanently resettled in Rochester last year, with another 100 or so scheduled to arrive in the next 12 months.
By contrast, St. Paul, the Minnesota city that accepted the next-largest number of Iraq refugees per capita last year, accepted 42 refugees between July 2008 and July 2009.
But the larger answer to why Rochester is home to so many refugees is Rochester itself. Because of its success at absorbing them, more have been attracted to come.
It’s not only Catholic Charity’s proficient handling of its case load, but equally the rich network of local agencies, churches, civic groups and volunteers that the agency depends upon, that has made Rochester welcoming to refugees and other immigrants.
At her Kiwanis speech, Alessio didn’t hesitate when answering her tough first question.
“We have to remember what our country was founded on,” she said. “We began as a home to immigrants. We were founded on the idea of welcoming the stranger. That’s what makes this country great.”
A straight-from-the-gut answer that her Dad would be proud of.