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Even After Coming to America, Life Can Still Be Difficult for Refugees

John Corley

In 2015, North Dakota resettled more refugees per capita than other state in the country according to data from the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Census. While both refugees and immigrants come to the U.S. to make it their new home, the term refugee has a different meaning because they were people forced to escape their native countries, usually because of war. Living in a country like the U.S. means that refugees no longer have to fear for their lives on a daily basis. However, being in a peaceful country doesn’t mean their lives will now be easy.

On a hot and sunny summer afternoon, the inside of Fargo’s Metro Recreation Center is even hotter. The air conditioner is off, and it does not take long at all before you start to sweat. The place feels very stuffy, similar to what it's like going up into an attic during the middle of a hot day. Yet, for around 20 at-risk elementary kids, the building is an oasis.

This is the fifth day of a weeklong hip-hop dance camp being put on by CHARISM (Care-ism), a non-profit that serves at-risk kids and families in Fargo. The at-risk kids in the camp are from severely impoverished households, and on top of that, are from refugee families facing challenges with living in a new country. The kids have been practicing all week to perform at the Fargo Street Fair, and have been led by dance instructor Chantell Sampson.

“To me kids are everything, they’re the future,” she said. “If we don’t nurture that relationship and help them be the young adults that I know they can be, then we’re failing as a society.”

The dance camp was funded through a grant given to CHARISM from both the Arts Partnership and the Fargo Police Department. Sampson had recently moved from the Fargo-Moorhead area to Denver, CO, however the grant was able to bring her back for a week so she could continue doing what she is passionate about.

Credit John Corley
Sampson (Middle-right) with the group of kids and a few of her assistants. The kids are part of a summer hip-hop dance camp put on by CHARISM, an organization serving the Fargo community for at-risk youth and families.

“This is what I want to do the rest of my life is inspire children,” she stated. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters how hard you work and you can be anything you wanna be.”

The kids here have lofty goals of one day becoming professional athletes, however Sampson makes it a point that they first need to have an education and a good work ethic. CHARISM chose to put on a dance camp because as Sampson says “these kids deserve proper education, but they also deserve to have some fun.”

The kids come from families that have fled countries such as Somalia, Sudan, Burundi, and Rwanda. CHARISM’s executive director John Fisher says kids can become at-risk from the difficulties that refugee families face. “With a new American population there is often times a language barrier, you have a culture barrier, you have an income barrier,” he says. “A lot of times these people have difficulty getting a leg up and getting the things that they need.”

The term at-risk can be associated with poverty, however it also applies to many different social situations. Examples of being at-risk include kids falling behind in school, difficulty transitioning into adulthood, and facing greater than average health problems.

Fargo Police Officer Matt Niemeyer assisted CHARISM with the dance camp. As an officer, he not only knows what the needs of the community are, he also knows how he can help. “There’s a great need to balance our contact with the community,” he says. “While we’ve done a lot to keep our patrol activities and other law enforcement related duties as consistent as we could, we were kinda lacking in some of our pro-social contacts.”

Niemeyer is one of two community trust officers who serve in the Fargo Police Department. Their primary mission is to build trust between citizens and law enforcement through community engagement. At-risk kids, whether they were born in the U.S. or immigrated into the country, are more likely to one-day commit crimes. For Niemeyer, part of the goal of engaging the community through other means than simply law enforcement is to steer at-risk kids away from a life of crime when they get older.

Credit John Corley
Fargo Police Officer Matt Niemeyer carries David Ndaruhuste on his shoulders during the Fargo Street Fair. Officer Niemeyer had been assisting CHARISM with the dance camp. Community trust officers seek to engage the community through alternative means than just law enforcement.

Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota is the organization responsible for resettling refugees into communities across the state. They work closely with the U.S. Department of State to figure out which refugees to bring into North Dakota, and on average they resettle around 400 refugees per year. Jessica Thomasson is the president and CEO, and she says that it’s really important for refugees to have a positive interaction with law enforcement as soon as they’re in the U.S.

“We invite representatives from the police department, from the fire department, and other people in uniform to begin from really week one of being in this country, helping the newest members of our community recognize that people in uniform are here to protect and serve them,” she says. Thomasson also notes that for most refugees, law enforcement may have been viewed as more of a threat to them than an ally in their native countries.

On average, 85 percent of refugees have a job within three to four months of being settled according to Thomasson. While having a job means a steady stream of income, refugees who struggle with English may be prevented from being promoted at that job. “We have a number of refugees who come to the United States who had very professional careers,” Thomasson says. “But their credentials don’t transfer here because primarily of language. So they may have been an electrical engineer in Iraq, and they come here and they need to start at an entry paying job.”

The biggest barrier caused by language may not even be the ability to work at a higher paying job. Thomason says that when someone doesn’t speak the same language as the majority of people around him or her that “it’s really hard to feel connected.”

While the challenge of acclimating to a new culture, finding a place to live, getting a job, and not knowing the language is tough, refugees who initially come to the U.S. may be doing so without family members who weren’t able to come with them. One of Lutheran Social Services primary objectives is to reunite families that have been split apart through the process of fleeing their native countries. Thomasson says “that’s a very common situation where people have been trying often times for years to re-unite with a spouse or a child or a parent, and often times didn’t know if they would ever see them again.”

While the term refugee may often times be used to describe someone who immigrated into the country as a refugee, the title only technically applies for the first year they live in the U.S. Afterwards, refugees must apply for a Green Card and then after five years they are eligible to become a citizen

People who were once refugees that decide to stay in the U.S. are now permanent members of communities across the country and don’t need to take refuge anymore. Jessica Thomasson has some advice for how refugees can be welcomed into communities across North Dakota. 

“A really important thing to do is see refugees as people, just like you and I.”

Once refugees are settled in communities, nonprofits such as CHARISM will help those that are considered at-risk, including the kids who were at the hip-hop dance camp. They had worked hard all week during the camp and don’t look nervous about their first time performing for a busy Fargo Street Fair.

Credit John Corley
The kids perform with Chantell Sampson (Middle) in the closed off streets of Downtown Fargo during the Fargo Street Fair.

The group of kids goes out into the middle of 2nd and Broadway in Downtown Fargo, and while the music plays they look like they’re having the time of their lives. As the performance ends a large crowd that had gathered to watch the kids cheers on what they just witnessed.

A three-minute performance that had taken a week to practice is over in a flash, yet this moment will be something that the kids will remember for a long time. Chantell Sampson and Officer Niemeyer interact with joyful parents over what their kids have just accomplished. It’s a moment of pride for those who have very little. While the kids still face an uphill battle, as long as they have people like Sampson and Niemeyer in their lives they won’t be doing it alone. 

Refugee’s will continue to integrate into communities across North Dakota, and they will face challenges unique to them. How communities choose to respond will affect the future of North Dakota’s newest citizens.