By Refugees, For Refugees: What’s Your Role?

Christian in front of The WE Center.

In December 1989, Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) invaded Liberia, marking the start of a civil war.  War raged from 1989 to 2003, killing 250,000 families of men, women, and children.  Government armies and rebel groups especially targeted the media for publishing articles articulating the destruction of Liberians.

Christian Harris, a Liberian journalist of 18 years at the time, found himself in the middle of the war in 1990.  “The government blamed the journalists for spreading misinformation, but we were spreading the facts, telling people where the rebels were and what was happening,” he said recently in an interview.

Christian fled to Minnesota, leaving behind beloved family and friends to start a new life.  “For two years I was here and my family was in Liberia.  There was constant fighting and killing there,” he said.  “I was trying to send money to my family, but I could not find a job.  When I finally got a job I had to make sure they were safe.”  After two years, he was able to move his family to the United States with him.

“We had to leave the country for our safety.”

Christian said, “I still wanted to be the voice of the people.  I knew my journalism career would be difficult in the United States, but I could do other things.”

He then moved to Fargo, where he founded, and is now the Executive Director of, the New American Consortium for Wellness and Empowerment (WE Center).

The WE Center is an umbrella organization for Ethnic Community-Based Organizations, with fifteen board members.   The members are currently The African Initiative for Progress (AIP), Giving+Learning, and Global Youth United.

The WE Center is a gathering place for refugees and New Americans within the Fargo-Moorhead community.  Its purpose is to aid and empower people new to America. The WE Center is unique because it was founded by a refugee, for refugees.  “We lived a refugee life.  We lived in refugee camps.  We came with the mental stress.  We come with the same need for celebration.  We come with that unique drive to get things done—to help others.”  Christian said, smiling his contagious smile.

Christian takes pride in his ability to relate to refugees that seek the WE Center’s help, saying, “We never say no here at the WE Center, because if you say no to a refugee, they will feel so hopeless and lost.  We are living reality of what transpired in our lives.”

The WE Center thrives on building relationships with refugees.  It connects New Americans to organizations in the Fargo-Moorhead community aimed at fostering Wellness and Empowerment.

According to the Fargo Forum, North Dakota takes in more refugees relative to its population than any other state.  Our large refugee population needs resources, and the WE Center is here to provide that.

“The WE Center is used as a community space for all of us New Americans,” Christian said.  “This is a place we all come and meet, share, and share knowledge, and talk about where we can go from here.  We want to share food, and share fun, and have a wonderful time.  Other communities have come [to the WE Center] and held their meetings to strengthen community involvement into the real life situation.”

“We are very proud of our center, and that’s what we are here for.”

The WE Center is run almost solely by volunteers; there are few permanent employees.  Christian laughed when we asked him what his days consisted of.  He said, “I’m everywhere; that’s the fun part of it.”  Darci Asche, the Director of Development writes grants and seeks donations.

Christian participating in Welcome Week 2015 with Welcomers Norah Ogunti (center) and Korto Parker (right).

“We rely on [volunteers] heavily for this kind of support level.”

The WE Center’s volunteers provide tutoring for refugees of all ages, keeping kids in school and helping adults with English language tutoring, help with studying for their citizenship tests and permit tests, and much more.  The WE Center can also help businesses that are having trouble with New American employees who may be having trouble adjusting to our culture.  These services help refugees to become functional members of our community.  With the variety of services the WE Center provides, they are always looking for monetary donations and new volunteers.

“My mother always said, ‘Money speaks many languages.’”  Christian said when discussing donations.  “When you have money you can do a lot.  When we have that support coming our way it is very helpful.”

The value of human interaction was clearly stated when Christian spoke with us about his first experience moving to the United States.  Although he already spoke English, he faced cultural challenges.

The transition from Liberia to the United States was not easy, and Christian noted a difference quickly.

When Christian moved to the United States, people saw him as different.  Even those who had met him before would pass him by in public areas when he tried to stop and say hello, only occasionally smiling an acknowledgement

This is very different from Liberia, where Christian said people are very open and stopping to chat in public is polite and friendly.  Also, being a public figure like a journalist meant people knew him, he said.  Because people were so different here, Christian became shy and introverted, unwilling to speak to others unless they spoke to him first.

One day, Christian got onto a small elevator with an older woman.  Frowning down at his feet, Christian didn’t say a word.  The woman elbowed Christian lightly and said, “Can you say something? Can you smile with me?”  Christian smiled and chatted with the woman on the short elevator ride.

“That changed my life,” Christian said, smiling back on the memory.  He explained the significance of the seemingly insignificant interaction that left him full of hope.  He got his confidence back that day.  The woman helped Christian to open up to others, to try being friendly once again. This time, it worked.  Christian thrives around other people and his positive energy is contagious.

Christian likes to describe the WE Center as a “bridge” between the New Americans and the communities.  He says they exists to give helpful information to those who are looking to start lives here—whether it be to buy a house or a meal.

When discussing the corporate community, the Executive Director just wants organizations to know the WE Center’s existence, and to offer services.

Christian notes that he already had a Bachelor’s degree when he came to America, and that he was lucky to be able to navigate decently on his own.  Unfortunately, many New Americans have trouble just opening a bank account.

“We have had challenges getting connected to the community.  But I am proud of the volunteers for help,” Christian said.   While voicing multiple times his appreciation for volunteers, we noticed the small building and few chairs around one big table.  The WE Center does not even have a sign outside the building.

Christian smiled when we began to conclude the interview.  He said the Fargo-Moorhead community just needs to know that the WE Center exists.

“We are here with an open heart and an open hand, willing to work and enjoy the growth in our relationship.”

When asked what he values most in life, Christian simply stated, “Family and friends. The more people I know, the happier I am.”  Christian has demonstrated this with his dedication to helping others through the WE Center, as well as through his time working as a journalist.

Written by North Dakota State University English students Maggie Crippen, Anna Melicher, and Larissa Vculek