By Danielle Cabot
Minnesota cities have developed a variety of programs and partnerships to help people arriving from other countries make successful transitions to life in the U.S.
The members of the spring 2016 Tapestry Project class gathered recently at Mankato’s Lincoln Community Center for graduation. During the ceremony, each graduate shared reflections on the seven-week program designed to introduce immigrants and refugees to life in the United States and to build relationships among neighbors.
Jama Weheriye, a refugee from Somalia, encouraged his fellow classmates to continue supporting each other after the program ends. His translator summarized Jama’s comments as “You pick me up, I’ll pick you up!” referencing not only the metaphorical support of a community, but also the very real transportation challenges that many immigrants face.
Participating equally alongside these new arrivals, staff from the Minnesota Council of Churches, community connectors (i.e., non-immigrant classmates), and local government officials soaked in the warmth and enthusiasm in the room, as well as the lessons they’d take home from the Tapestry experience.
When people from other countries arrive in Minnesota, they face a series of puzzles to solve that stand between the lives they left behind and the future they seek. But in many communities, cities and community partners have stepped up to help immigrants and refugees put the pieces together and transition successfully into new lives as good neighbors, strong parents, and valued employees and business owners.
Minnesota cities have histories of immigration outreach dating back decades. The Joint Community Policing Partnership and New American’s Academy, supported by six west metro cities and partners, has for years garnered national acclaim for bridging the gap between police and these community groups. Minneapolis, among its many established outreach initiatives, has partnered with the African Development Center since 2006 to provide small business loans that do not violate the Muslim prohibition on paying interest. And Greater Minnesota cities like Rochester and Winona have now become a resource for other communities that more recently have experienced an influx of foreign-born residents seeking a fresh start.
It is often the schools and public safety departments that first witness the effects of immigration on a city. In Mankato, Deputy Director of Public Safety Amy Vokal says they found themselves responding to the same situations involving immigrants seemingly without end.
“This is repetitive,” Vokal says she thought at the time. “We’re doing the same thing over and over and not fixing anything.” Some of the problems included disruptive behavior, kitchen fires, and confusion about driver’s licenses.
Started in 2011, the Tapestry Project began as a discussion between the Minnesota Council of Churches, the City of Mankato, and Lloyd Management (a property management company) to address these recurring problems. The City of North Mankato and the Mankato Area Public Schools Adult Basic Education program have also joined the Tapestry Planning Committee. Classes cover a variety of topics, including kitchen and fire safety, an introduction to local nonprofit services and government agencies, homemaking skills, a tour of recreational opportunities in the area, and parenting.
Parenting? When children who are immersed in an educational setting learn U.S. customs and the English language faster than their parents, that can put parents at a disadvantage. In addition, refugees from countries marred by institutional violence and corruption often carry with them deep-seated mistrust and fear of uniformed personnel, says North Mankato Police Chief Chris Boyer.
Refugee parents may fear that disciplining their children will lead to police involvement and that authorities will take their children away. In one instance, a Tapestry student said her child threatened to call 911 if she took the child’s cell phone away—an officer attending the program encouraged the parent to call the child’s bluff and dial 911 herself.
All in this together
Collaboration among public and private partners is a consistent theme among cities actively engaging with new residents.
Last year’s opening of the Albert Lea Community Resource Center—a place where immigrants and other residents can get assistance and information—was jumpstarted by the work of a Blandin Community Leadership Program cohort. A partnership between the United Way, the city, the Chamber of Commerce, and Freeborn County worked together to open the space at Riverland Community College.
Center staff and stakeholders provide services such as agency referrals, volunteer opportunities, mentoring, application assistance, translation/interpreter services, and workshops. The center recently moved into a new location downtown with the United Way and other community group offices.
“We’ve got a great relationship and a great history working with all the jurisdictions about problems that are facing the community,” says Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams. “We will rally behind an initiative or project to get all the pieces to come together rather quickly. It comes kind of natural for us in Albert Lea.”
For cities like Albert Lea, it’s not only an issue of the heart, but also of economic development. There are over 200 job vacancies in a five-mile radius of Albert Lea, according to Adams. “The community is starting to realize we need to be more proactive about inviting prospective new residents to enjoy our quality of life, to plant those seeds and grow them.”
Making a house a home
When the City of Roseville established a rental licensing and inspection program in 2014 to better regulate the quality of housing in the city, Karen refugees—who had recently concentrated in an area of southeast Roseville with a number of multi-unit apartment complexes—started receiving 1233.30-day eviction notices. Others were told that their rent was being increased to cover the costs of coming into compliance.
“That was not the intent of the program,” emphasizes City Manager Patrick Trudgeon, who recalls quickly responding to the concerns of the Karen Organization of Minnesota(KOM) to address the escalating situation. The city and KOM (which is now based in Roseville) organized three intake sessions, with interpreters and support from a Minnesota organization called Legal Aid, to help the Karen residents understand their legal rights as tenants, dispel misinformation, and formulate responses to their property management. The city also contacted the rental management companies to ensure they understood what was legally permissible, and what was not. Through the process, many issues were resolved.
The rental licensing program response spurred development of the Karen Interagency Group, stakeholders that continue to meet to address other transitional needs and grow the city’s relationship with the new residents. The city has since undertaken outreach in the form of listening sessions, support for a community garden in the adjacent City of Maplewood, and lemonade stand meet-and-greets that have allowed the police and fire departments to establish rapport and a sense of trust with Karen residents in the neighborhood.
A resource for other cities
During the discussions with property owners, Roseville staff heard a common theme—that Karen tenants did not understand U.S. customs—leading to the question of how to educate new residents about the do’s and don’ts of living in a Minnesota residential neighborhood.
Roseville joined a partnership of the Twin Cities Public Television Echo Project and 20 other agencies and metro cities to produce a five-minute broadcast called “A Good, Safe Place to Live.” It highlights the basic skills that refugees need to maintain safe, healthy housing and happy neighbors. The broadcast was released in April and is available in five different languages: Somali, Hmong, Karen, Spanish, and English.
Ultimately, Trudgeon has found that Roseville’s experiences with the Karen community have also strengthened its relationship with community organizations and neighboring jurisdictions beyond refugee issues.
“Problems don’t stop at the border,” says Trudgeon. If "we can cooperatively plan together, not just for the Karen population, but on a bigger scale … there’s a benefit there for everyone.”
Danielle Cabot is communications coordinator with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 281-1233.
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