Fowzia Adde: Overcoming barriers for refugee women

Fowzia Adde: Overcoming barriers for refugee women

This is one of a series of articles written by eleven Concordia College students under the tutelage of Catherine McMullen during a semester-long advanced reporting class at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN. These pieces explore refugee resettlement in the Fargo-Moorhead area. As an introduction to this project, McMullen states that these articles “…do not attempt to provide the definitive study on the topic, but rather explore various aspects of refugee resettlement through the stories of people who know the topic on a first-hand and deeply personal basis.” Read more here.

Fowzia Adde
Fowzia Adde is the Executive Director of the Immigration Development Center. Photo by Katie Beedy.

Fowzia Adde is at work in her office in the Townsite Center in Moorhead. Every minute, it seems, a bing from her computer indicates the arrival of another email—from businesses seeking funds from her organization, groups inviting her to conferences on gender equality and female empowerment, an elderly relative asking for help coming to America.

Adde is the executive director of the Immigrant Development Center, a nonprofit organization committed to helping immigrants and refugees find economic prosperity in the Fargo-Moorhead community. Symbols of her accomplishments can be found on every surface of the spacious room: framed certificates sit on her bookshelves, blueprints of the IDC’s latest project, the International Marketplace, hang on the beige walls next to photographs of her eight children, and a glass trophy bearing the words “YWCA Women of the Year” pokes out from beneath the clutter of papers and coffee cups that cover her desk. A ray of sun shines through the window and falls on the award, catching Adde’s eye.

“It didn’t happen magically,” she says, taking the trophy in her hands. “It was a lifetime of changes that brought me here.”

Since 1997, Adde has learned to maneuver a new life as a minority among minorities: a refugee woman in a country that has for so long catered to white, English-speaking men.

Adde’s experience, while remarkable, is not singular. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, women and girls comprise about half of the tens of thousands of refugees who come to America in search of sanctuary every year. It is not possible for native United States citizens to fully comprehend the hardships that any refugee, regardless of gender, must endure; this

experience becomes even more complicated when the refugee is a woman. As a result of gender roles and their position in society, they are at an increased risk for discrimination and sexual and gender-based violence.

“The huge sound of weapons, like thunder”

Thirteen-year- old Adde was in her form one classroom in Mogadishu, Somalia, when the war began. The year was 1990, and rebel groups, hoping to overthrow the regime of President Siad Barre, had entered the capital city. Adde and her classmates, just teenagers, sat terrified in their seats as the sounds of screams and gunfire echoed outside.

“If you didn’t come from a country that’s war-torn, it’s hard to realize,” she said. “It’s the huge sound of weapons, like thunder.”

The sounds grew closer and closer to the school as parents began to arrive. Adde watched as her friends were taken in the arms of their crying parents, not knowing whether she would see them again. Her own mother finally came to bring her home, to what they thought was safety.  Once home, Adde and her six younger siblings were ushered into the basement. Her father, who was working for the government at the time, had already fled. “He was the first target,” she said.

The house shook and dust began to fall from the ceiling, and Adde’s mother knew that they could not remain hidden in that basement. They began making plans. All of the banks had been closed, so the residents of Mogadishu had to find other ways to get the money they needed. Luckily, her mother had a fair amount of gold jewelry saved. “She wanted to buy the new styles,” Adde said. “She didn’t know that this would be something that would save us in the future.”

Every day her mother would take those treasured pieces—necklaces, bracelets, rings— out from their boxes and drawers and sell them in the market for less than a quarter of what she had originally paid.  Three months later, with enough money saved, Adde’s mother gathered the children and told them to pack only what they could carry on their small backs.  Together they fled by foot and bus to the port town of Barawa, more than 200 km away. 

Barawa, while farther from the violence, presented Adde’s family with its own challenges. Compared to Mogadishu, Barawa was a small, impoverished town.

“That was the worst thing that happened to us,” Adde said. “Nobody wanted to buy [gold] from her. Nobody had money.”

They stayed in Barawa for three months. During this time, Adde took on the role of daughter, sister, and mother. She would walk miles to fetch enough water to give each of the kids a bath. She entertained and comforted them while they waited for their mother to return with food. When she did return, she came bearing only the head of an animal and less than half a pound of rice— all to feed seven hungry children.

Prior to the war, meals had been a time for Adde and her family to gather around large, communal plates of hot meats and rice. The children would scoop up their own servings, always filling their stomachs. In Barawa, with food so limited, they let their mother divide their portions for them. Nobody wanted to share. “When life is like that, you lose your choices,” she said. “You just want to get out of that problem, and you want to look for a way out.”

A fishing boat to Kenya

Their way out was a small fishing boat traveling from Barawa to Kenya. Adde’s family survived the trip, but many others did not. She recalls watching whole boats go down in front of their own. But the coast of Kenya was no safer for them than the water; they were illegal refugees, some of the first to arrive in Kenya, and they came with no paperwork. For four days they sat in that crowded boat as the Kenyan government blocked them from setting foot on solid ground.

“We thought, ‘what now? Now we reached a safe place, and nobody wants us,’” she said.

Finally, the United Nations and the Kenyan government reached a deal to take in refugees. Legs shaking from hunger and seasickness, Adde and her family stepped off the boat and began the journey to the refugee camp.

The camp was located on the outskirts of Mombasa, a very damp, muddy part of Kenya, where malaria ran rampant and the tents provided by the UN collapsed when the rain came. There were no sources of clean water, no private bathrooms. Adde’s immune system, accustomed to the mild weather in Mogadishu, was not prepared for such conditions. She contracted malaria in the first months.

“But I was one of the fortunate,” she said. “I made it through.”

Adde’s mother, desperate to provide a better life for her family, refused to stay in that camp for more than a year. She sold her belongings in downtown Mombasa and found an apartment in the city. Adde finished her high school education and learned medicine in Mombasa. Eventually, she was hired by the UN to become a nurse in the camps. She made a monthly salary of $50, but she never saw that check. Her mother would pick up Adde’s salary every month, and along with the money she continued to make in the markets, pay the rent on the apartment. The family lived in that apartment for six years.

“After that, I knew life will be better,” Adde says. “We just paid a lot for a price, you know?”

On June 16, 1997, Adde left her family and her war-torn home behind and fled to America; however, like many women, her struggle did not cease when she stepped off of that plane in Washington, D.C.

 Refugee women face barriers and isolation

Hank Tkachuk, a professor of communication studies at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, has spent the last 30 years working with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and Lutheran Social Services to help resettle refugees. He has also created curriculum which allows students in his Intercultural Communication class to act as mentors for local refugees every semester. For three decades he has worked with refugees, many of them women, attempting to break down the barriers that prevent them from beginning anew in America.

“Women were less likely to be educated, they were less likely to have linguistic skills, they were less likely to have worked outside of the home,” Tkachuk said. “Add those all up, it makes it much harder to be a refugee woman than be a man.”

Darci Ashe, who has collaborated with Tkachuk for much of her career, has worked with Adde and other refugee women for more than 20 years. She is a foster parent for unaccompanied minors, a former longtime employee at Lutheran Social Services, and the current Director of Development at the New American Consortium for Wellness and Empowerment, or WE Center, in Fargo. Asche and her coworkers at the WE Center are committed to educating the community and helping New Americans grow accustomed to their new home. They offer resources like cultural competency training, new business training, behavioral health guidance, and a language exchange program. In all of these roles, Ashe has been exposed to the challenges that these women face. The greatest obstacle she sees in the lives of the female refugees she works with is a sense of isolation. Many of them come from villages where family and friends lived side by side, offering companionship and sharing the burden of childbearing. When they come to America, they leave this community behind.

“If they have small children, it doesn’t really make sense for them to have a job and then try to figure out how to pay childcare,” she said. “So a lot of times the husband will have more than one job and the women will stay home with the children. That just completely puts a halt to any kind of integration because they’re stuck at home.”

Jonix Owino is not a refugee, but she is familiar with the experience of transitioning to American life as an African woman. She has also seen this kind of isolation at work. After completing her undergraduate work in her hometown of Nairobi, Kenya, Owino moved to Fargo to obtain her master’s of sociology degree at North Dakota State University. One day after moving to Fargo, she had a conversation with a refugee woman who had been in America for more than 10 years.

“I asked her, ‘Who are your friends? What are your networks?’” Owino said. “She told me that she had nobody outside of her immediate family.”

Owino was inspired by this one woman’s experience to complete her master’s thesis on the isolation of refugee women in America. She designed a study to see if such isolation was a common theme among all refugee women in the area and interviewed ten refugee women, all 40 years or older and from different countries. She found that all of them, to some extent, were experiencing the same isolation.

While compiling her research, Owino found that some of the most common causes of this isolation were cultural differences, language barriers, and a lack of opportunities to connect with local people. Many of these women are escaping war and violence in countries that placed a very strong emphasis on community and family. “Moving into a very individualistic society can make it harder for them to recover from their very distressing lives,” she said.

For this reason, Owino and Ashe agree that women like Adde, who come to America without a spouse or children, are at an advantage. Without a husband to rely on they are forced to integrate; to receive government benefits they are required to go out, learn English, and get a job.

 Adde: Help from strangers

Adde was a registered nurse in Kenya, trained to help treat refugees like herself who suffered from disease and injury. In America, she considered herself lucky when she found her first job: working as a housekeeper at the Savoy Hotel. But the back-breaking work cleaning rooms could barely pay for her first month’s rent, so she took on a second job as a cashier at 7/11.

At this convenience store in Southeast Washington, one of the district’s most dangerous neighborhoods, Adde had her first encounter with the danger and discrimination so notoriously faced by refugee women.

“There was a supervisor there who was a very bad man,” she said. “He knew I was young and he knew I was innocent, I was new. He took advantage of me. I worked 40 hours, I would only get paid for 25. I don’t know what he did with my other hours…To this day, I curse him. He used me. I needed that money, you know? And he took advantage of me.”

At the time, Adde did not fight back. “I wish I knew how to complain…I didn’t pick up my voice. I didn’t want to lose my job.”

Despite the injustice she faced during those long two-shift days,  Adde’s bright smile and trusting heart helped her find company in the least likely places.  First, there were her neighbors: a family of Vietnamese refugees, who made her dinner on her first night in America. Then there was the middle-aged Spanish woman who trained her at the Savoy and whose resilience and work ethic inspired her to keep going. There was the bus driver who drove her home after all of her two-shift days, calling out “Fowzia! It’s 16th Avenue. Go home,” on the nights when she fell asleep in her seat. Finally, there were the customers she met at the 7/11. There was a school for the deaf in the neighborhood, and students would often stop by the store between classes. She spoke to them in hand gestures, her own improvised version of American Sign Language.

“You know what I liked about the deaf university?” she asks. “I could understand them because my language is already deaf in this country.”

The challenge of culture shock

Even when refugee women are able to find work and some sense of community, culture shock can still prevent them from growing accustomed to their new life.

“For a lot of the women, where they’re coming from, there’s already a kind of oppression,” Ashe explains. “And so when they come to the U.S., often times women are struggling to kind of figure out how to maneuver in that more progressive atmosphere.”

In many ways, this new, progressive society can bring with it new forms of oppression. Many of the traditions and customs that these women have known their whole lives are no longer acceptable when they come to America, and they are forced to choose between carrying on a tradition that is considered  inappropriate or to give up a piece of themselves.

One drastic difference that refugee women must adapt to is a new kind of childrearing. “Childrearing customs and habits vary widely, and they’re not always acceptable here,” Tkachuk said. “Most of the places where these refugee women come from use more corporal punishment…so it’s harder, even, because they don’t have parenting strategies that are okay here.”

Clothing is another point of contention for many refugee women, specifically those escaping violence and turmoil in a primarily Muslim nation. Tkachuk has experienced this struggle secondhand in his time resettling refugees.

“Men are easy, because men will wear Western clothing,” he said. “We can get used or thrift store pants, shirts, and a suit coat for men, and they’re happy as clams…The women do not wear Western clothing.”

Adde, who wears long, flowing dresses in her office rather than Western slacks or a suit, agrees. “If you are a Muslim woman, you carry the tradition,” she said. “You cover your hair, you wear a long dress, and automatically you are a target of some fools who are racist. I think that people who are racist are very sick…There is no space in me for racism. I feel a human being is a human being. Woman carries tradition, so she is the number one target.”

After six months of working two jobs, sleeping only on the bus rides between shifts, and being harassed by her boss only to barely make enough money to pay her rent and put food on her table, Adde decided to leave Washington, D.C. Several of her friends from the refugee camp in Kenya had been resettled in Fargo, where they told her the rent was cheaper, the people were kinder, and the jobs were easier to find.

 “Good stuff” happened in Fargo

In December of 1997, in the middle of one of the city’s snowiest winters, Adde arrived in Fargo by bus. “Then, a lot of good stuff happened.” She found an apartment that cost $420 a month— half of the rent on her apartment in D.C. She got a full-time job working on a production line at Sheyenne Dakota, Inc. She began taking English classes in the evening. She got married and gave birth to her first child in 1998.

This life, while more pleasant and prosperous than the brief one she led in Washington, still bore its own disappointments.

“I lost my hope of being a nurse anymore,” Adde said. “I told my caseworker that I used to be a nurse, and I gave her all of my certificates. She tried to find me a job working somewhere close, a clinic or the family health center or something, she applied me to three jobs and I couldn’t get any jobs. It was fine with me, I said ‘to hell of it,’ you know?”

Adde took the CNA test without going to a single class.

She scored 100%.

Even after this feat, Adde was unable to find a job in the medical field. However, she knew that she was meant to do more than turn down sheets in hotel rooms, work night shifts at convenience stores, and assemble wires on a production line.  She took an over-the-phone interpreting job through Network Omni, a translation service company out of Oakland, California. She worked out of her apartment in Fargo, and spent her days bridging the language gap between non-English speakers and their employers, caseworkers, doctors.

“I was like that movie, ‘Bruce Almighty’” she said.  “I will hear everybody’s stories because I am interpreting. I would interpret somebody whose water was cut, and another one electricity cut, somebody broke their hip I am there, there is an accident or somebody’s getting a ticket I will be there. Somebody who is very sick in the hospital, somebody who’s kid ran away, everything.”

It became increasingly difficult for Adde to walk in the shoes of the disenfranchised for eight hours a day without becoming emotionally involved with her clients.

Fowzia Adde 2
In 2003, Adde won the WYCA Women of the Year award. Photo by Katie Beedy.

“When I see something wrong happening, I will interrupt,” she said. “I almost got in trouble a couple of times because they would say ‘Your job is to interpret, not to advocate. Stop caring for these people or you will lose your job.’ I said ‘Alright, I want to lose my job.’”

Adde left Network Omni without any idea what her next step would be. Without a job she had no money, but she still had to pay her rent. She was also sending money back to her mother and siblings in Africa every month.

Motivated by the stories she heard from her clients at Network Omni and her own experiences as a female refugee, Adde committed her time to volunteering with several groups in the Fargo-Moorhead area. She became a voice for the racially, sexually, and financially oppressed.

Adde picked up the trophy on her desk. “When I got this, I didn’t know I was a ‘Young Leader of Today,’” she said. “The women around me decided that. I was just volunteering. I would do everything.”

In 2003, the same year that she received the award from the YWCA, Adde’s volunteer work culminated in the creation of the Immigrant Development Center. Today, Adde and the IDC assist New Americans by providing funding and entrepreneurial training for those who wish to start businesses in the area. Some of the businesses that they have helped create include restaurants, ethnic grocery stores, and clothing stores.

“It came together because I have seen a lot of stuff that’s missing from the programs that are giving to the refugee community,” she said. “There is a need for an increase in programs. There is a need of making sure they have a chance. It’s not people who want to destroy this country…it’s people who decided to come to a land of opportunity, and want to make it better for their family, you know? They are hard workers. They are looking for chances to be given, and this is that chance. It’s for the believers.”

Programs to help women aren’t accessible

Asche explains that the lack of assistance available to refugee women in the Fargo-Moorhead area is not due to a lack of trying. “There are programs that are out there and there are programs that are available,” she says. “It’s just that they’re not accessible, either for financial reasons or just sheer need.” The Adult Learning Center, which offers English language classes to New

Americans, often fills to capacity. Southeast Human Services and the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center work with victims of sexual violence, a common occurrence with refugee women, but their resources are limited. Asche hopes to form a women’s group through the Consortium, where refugee women can talk about their experiences in a comfortable communal atmosphere. Again, money is her greatest obstacle.

 “You know, there’s nobody throwing around $400,000 to form a women’s program,” she says.

Ashe says that Adde’s success and her contributions to the F-M are just one example of the things refugee women can accomplish, if only they are given support and assistance.

“I think the number one top word for working with refugee women is ‘resilience’,” she said. “Just seeing how resilient they are, considering what they’ve been through. I still can’t imagine it. Sometimes I think I suffer secondhand just from hearing their story. I’m dumbfounded by how they can just come to a new place, not speak the language, sometimes not have a formal education, and then just achieve these really amazing accomplishments.”

Adde believes that this resilience is the core of the human spirit, and if one can find it, they can get through anything. Refugee women, and any other oppressed group, can fight through the hardship if only they believe in their own strength.

“I have seen what poor means,” she said. “What refugee means. What it means to be a low-income family in America. What it means to be a middle-income American. I am part of the American Dream. I put together a project that’s over a million and a half projects and I am achieving that for me. I was like, ‘you got it Fowzia. The rest is history, you know?”

This piece was written by Concordia College student Katie Beedy as part of an Investigating and Narrating the News course during the Spring of 2016 where students reported on refugee issues and stories in Fargo-Moorhead. To learn more about this project and read additional stories, visit their website at

Community Gardens: Growing more than veggies

Community Gardens: Growing more than veggies
Growing Together
Volunteers and New Americans join together to work in the garden. Photo courtesy of Growing Together Facebook page.

It’s early February, the ground is covered in sticky-wet snow and the streets are sloppy from a week of 40-degree temperatures. This weather is unseasonably warm for the majority of the Fargo-Moorhead population. But for New Americans Zainab Alsudani and Alyaa Luaibi, Fargo is still chilly and they long for the ground to thaw and the sun to come out of hiding so they can eat freshly gardened produce like tomatoes and zucchini.

Once spring hits, and planting season begins, the Growing Together Community Garden will open so New Americans like Alsudani and Luaibi, who are both from Iraq, can have a place to get fresh vegetables that they helped grow.

Luaibi said she enjoys taking her kids to the community gardens because they get to help and it gives them something to do. She also likes the “organic and good” food she receives from gardening such as cucumbers, tomatoes, and zucchini.

The Growing Together Gardens were created in 2006 in part by Nola Storm and Jack Wood as a mission of their local church, Olivet Lutheran of Fargo. Storm had experience working with refugees by sponsoring refugees through church, working as a school social worker with Fargo Public Schools, and as an ELL instructor at Agassiz Adult Learning Center.

The idea of the garden began when Storm got in contact with Wood and decided they needed to do something for the refugee families who they felt were so disconnected from the rest of the community. Their first instinct was to garden because Wood is a “tomato genius,” according to Storm.

“Our first mission is always to build a sense of community,” Storm said. “The food is just a fabulous byproduct.”

More than fresh produce

What started as one 6-by-6-foot plot at Community Homes (a subsidized apartment complex in South Fargo that houses many New Americans) with only five families, the Growing Together franchise has grown exponentially in the last 10 years. Now more than 120 families are with the Growing Together program with their hands in five gardens around the area.

The plots provide easy access to New Americans all across Fargo with locations at Community Homes, Lutheran Social Services, Rabanus Park, and another in south Fargo due to a partnership with Catalyst Medical Center, according to Storm.

The gardens provide an opportunity for refugees from many different countries and native community members to work together toward a common goal. Storm said with a chuckle that the interactions over the years have been interesting. Cultural and language differences are two of the reasons interactions at the gardens can be difficult.

“It’s hard to be from another language and figure out how to forge new relationships,” Storm said.

Storm told a story about a man from Liberia who wasn’t able to learn people’s names very well. When asked why, he said of native community members, “you guys all look alike.”

In order to help break these language barriers, the Growing Together organizers split the volunteers and New American families up in to teams, so that they get a chance to interact with each other while keeping busy doing garden work. Even though they don’t speak the same language, being able to plant tomatoes as a team brings them together as neighbors, Storm said.

Despite those language barriers, Luaibi and Alsudani have been able to get more than just fresh produce from Growing Together.

“Yes, for me it’s helped meet different people,” Luaibi said. “I feel good. The gardens have helped me and my friend Zainab.”

At the gardens they have met other people from Iraq, Bhutan, Liberia, and even quite a few Americans.

Luaibi and Alsudani came to the U.S from Iraq in November 2013 with their husbands and children. They both said winter is still hard for them, and going to the gardens in the summer is a great opportunity. They started going to the community gardens in June of last year every Tuesday after they finished their classes at the Adult Learning Center.

Most of the refugees face the same adjustment problems. Storm described that often times their neighbors don’t talk to them, and when it is as cold as it is in the winter, many New Americans choose to stay in the warmth of their apartment.

“The garden gives New American families a sense of belonging, a place to go that means something, a way to practice what they know and English, and use their skills,” she said.

Storm tells a story about the big difference the gardens can make in the lives of New Americans. Several years ago, before the Growing Together garden was established at Community Homes, a Bhutanese family moved into an apartment there. The son told Storm that his father, who had been a farmer in his native country, saw a small lot behind the apartments and said: “Get me an ox. See that land?  I can get a farm.” The father became depressed when he found out he couldn’t do what he loved. But later, his family had gone to Wood’s house to help seed his garden. Storm said the Bhutanese man got a smile on his face, and said “I’m finally happy” because he was able to use his farming skills. That’s what growing together is about, Storm said.

Growing Together 2
Volunteers and New Americans collecting and sorting vegetables. Photo courtesy of Growing Together Facebook page.

Hard work, big rewards

The gardens take a lot of work. All of the organizers go to each garden once a week to check on the crops. They also meet year round with their members to keep the involvement going. Recently, they even had a holiday party.

Because the summer is short and the program is so large, all the work for the week on one garden must be done in a day. Volunteers and New Americans come to the garden to weed, water, seed and other important work.  

When the gardens first started, volunteers and New Americans would do the work, and then serve a huge meal to all those who helped. Now that the members of the gardens are as plentiful as their tomatoes, they have PBJ’s and salads. Sometimes, New American families will even bring traditional dishes to share.

As far as distributing the harvests go, Growing Together has had to adjust their system for the numbers. Storm said after all the veggies are picked distribution lines are created for the produce to be collected by each family, who receives a bag and container for their share. The amount of produce each family receives depends on the amount of hours they put in to the garden work, to make it fair across the board.  

Sometimes, even the simplest of activities like collecting the vegetables they helped plant can bring back hurtful memories from the refugee camps. Storm said when they first started using the distribution lines it made some of the New Americans anxious due to memories of having to collect rations in the camps. Storm, Wood, and the rest of the Growing Together Team had to adjust to these reactions, and most of the refugees understood that everyone is getting their share of the plot.

Many New Americans hear about the garden through word of mouth via a neighbor, a friend, or another community organization. Luaibi and Alsudani were told about the gardens by one of their teachers at the Adult Learning Center. No matter how the New Americans learn about the gardens, they come to them looking for more community.

With a deep breath and tears forming in her eyes, Storm describes her favorite part of working with New Americans at Growing Together “They have so much resilience,” she said. “It has strengthened my faith that the human spirit can rise above the terrible things and be grateful for the little things.

“Refugees love this country and are so thankful to be here – they want to meet their neighbors – they want the same things we do,” she said. “I am so grateful, and amazed of these people every day.”

Below are addresses for each of the four main Growing Together Community Gardens:


Address: 702 23rd St. S., Fargo


Address: 3910 25th St. S., Fargo


Address: 3911 20th Ave. S., Fargo


Address: 4415 18th Ave. S., Fargo


This piece was written by Concordia College student Paige Olson as part of an Investigating and Narrating the News course taught by Catherine McMullen during the Spring of 2016. To learn more about this project and read additional stories, visit their website at

Refugees face long, grueling process

Refugees face long, grueling process

In February 2014, Faris Alghanimi left his job in Bagdad, escaping the danger of the Taliban to face a new challenge: The U.S. immigration system.

Alghanimi was born in Iraq and lived in Bagdad most of his life. In 2011 he began to feel he was no longer safe in his country. In May, he applied for refugee status. In order to gain refugee status, a person must meet several criteria laid out by Article 1 of the 1951 United Nations Convention “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

The United States has been accepting refugees since World War II. North Dakota has brought in more refugees per capita than any other state in the nation. The number of refugees brought in has varied year to year.  However, since 2009, of the 19 million refugees in the world, the number admitted into the United States has been very close to 75,000 every year. Over half of these are from Bhutan, according to documents provided by Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota. The process that refugees go through to get to the United States is many times decades long, extremely dangerous, and rarely successful. Every piece of their past is checked, both by the U.N. and by the U.S. and once they get here, if they get here, they are thrown into another arena where they fight for jobs, respect, and a happy life, rather than for survival.

Refugees must make it through all nine of these major steps in order to begin a new life in the U.S. Graphic courtesy of Lutheran Social Services.


According to Saurav Dahal, a Special Projects Manager at Lutheran Social Services, many refugees who arrive in the United States come with stories filled with blood and anguish. During a presentation he gave on the refugee process, Dahal read this passage told by a 13-year-old refugee:

“I remember running through the streets that were once so shiny and so beautiful, now turning into bloody mess. I saw people on the ground yelling, ‘Please help me’. I watched in horror, praying to God that I’m just dreaming and for him to get me out of this nightmare. But no, the smell of burning buildings and the noise of tanks rushing down the streets and the blood of the wounded soldiers made it too real. That is the worst feeling of all, watching people die and there is nothing you can do about it. From that day and now, nothing will ever be the same.”

Since fleeing death is a requirement to become a refugee, this kind of story is common. “Most refugees you talk to or meet have seen or have had that experience where they have faced violence or had their family members killed or their loved ones killed,” Dahal said.

Alghanimi’s fear of persecution came from the Taliban, who roamed much of the country. “I worked with the U.N., which was in a very secure region, but when I get out [of that region], the terrorists would think I worked with the U.S. Embassy or Iraqi government and they’d start to do something bad to me. That is why I applied to get my refugee status,” Alghanimi said.

Alghanimi worked for the U.N., where he helped give jobs to people in poor communities by starting U.N.-funded projects in those same communities. Later, he worked for a program funded by the U.S. while still in Bagdad working with people displaced by the Iraq conflict.

In most cases, to apply for refugee status a person must already be outside of their home country. This escape is usually very dangerous, and many die trying to get out. “Of course not everybody makes it,” Dahal said.  “We have all heard the story of the Syrian boy found on the shore, a four-year-old, that basically went viral, and we hear of incidents where boats capsize and people die.”

Once reaching a refugee camp outside of their home country, they must register with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Once a person gives proof that they are fleeing persecution in their home country to the UNHCR, they will be given refugee status, Dahal said. However, gaining refugee status is nowhere near the end of the journey. Life as a refugee is uncomfortable and full of danger. According to documents from LSS, many refugee camps are under-supplied and over-crowded, have poor security, and have only very basic healthcare and education. People living in the camps are not able to work outside of the camp, and are constantly exposed to disease.

“Refugee camps are not a solution,” Dahal said. “When you see a camp a number of things come to your mind such as law and order, basic supplies, healthcare . . . there is not enough to make a sustainable living for the rest of your life and for your children and grandchildren.”

It took Alghanimi three years between gaining refugee status and getting to come to America. However, those years seemed very long. “You do not feel safe there. I had to change my car every six months to hide [from the Taliban].”

Three years is an incredibly short amount of time to be accepted into a host country. Dahal said that many refugees spend upwards of 20 years in refugee camps waiting to be resettled. “Many Bhutanese refugees we have helped, their children are in their mid-twenties, they have never seen Bhutan. They have never been to Bhutan. The only thing they know is about Nepal, but they are not a Nepali. They are from Bhutan.”

However, refugees from Iraq do not have to go to refugee camps because there is a working government there, Dahal said. In fact, many of the world’s refugees are not in camps. They are in big cities and are referred to as urban refugees. According to the UNHCR website, “Like 3.3 billion other people on Earth, they have been steadily moving to cities and towns, a trend that has accelerated since the 1950s.”

The benefits for urban refugees include opportunities for making money and a greater chance of anonymity, but those advantages come with heavy downsides. Living in cities can make it harder for refugees to make their way to the UNHCR agencies to get help. Also, even though urban refugees and those living in camps have the same rights, the UNHCR website claims “Refugees may not have legal documents that are respected, they may be vulnerable to exploitation, arrest and detention.”


Once a person files for refugee status, they have to go through rounds of interviews with the UNHCR to determine if they actually qualify as refugees, according to the U.N. Stephen Baird, an immigration lawyer in Fargo, explains that most refugees do not pass through this part of the resettlement process and onto the U.S. immigration system. “The failure rate for people going through the U.N. system is extremely high, like 95 percent,” Baird said.

After a refugee passes through the UNCHR, they are put into host countries’ immigration systems. They generally do not go anywhere until a country has processed and accepted their application. Each country a refugee applies to individually processes the refugee and determines his or her eligibility to come to their country. According to Baird, refugees have no real input on where they end up. Once a country finishes their processing, that refugee has to decide whether to go to that country. “They can decline, they don’t have to take [the invitation], but if they do then they are betting on whatever country they prefer to go to will accept them. Most people won’t do that, they just go wherever they can and make a new life wherever they end up,” Baird said.

Once passed into the U.S. immigration system, a refugee has to go through many more layers of investigation, Baird said. This starts with filling out forms that establish identification, which can be a challenge. “Most people do not have forms of I.D., birth certificates, anything to back this up, so what they are filling in on the form is backed by nothing but yes, this really is my name.”

Baird said most refugees come from countries that have been having problems for a long time and there is no way to ever confirm these people’s identities. This can be especially problematic when refugees do not remember their real identity. “People may not know for sure when they were born, or they may not know for sure where they were born, or one or both parents are long gone and they don’t know who they were anymore.”

To be considered by the U.S. service, they must fit the U.S. definition of a refugee, which differs in slight ways to the U.N. definition, Dahal said. For example, being displaced by famine will qualify someone as a refugee by the U.N.; however, the U.S. would label that as economic migration, and therefore anyone displaced by famine is not eligible for resettlement in the U.S.

Just like the U.N. process, the U.S. immigration process for refugees also has a very high rejection rate, Baird said. People will often be turned away if they have had any past legal problems, or were involved in a conflict as a combatant or belligerent. Further, the U.S. accepts a limited number of refugees each year. The Proposed Refugee Admissions Report by the U.S. State Department says the ceiling for the number of refugees admitted will be 85,000 for the 2016 fiscal year. That is up from 70,000 in 2015. So far, according to a report posted by the Refugee Processing Center in the U.S., as of April 1, 2016, 29,055 refugees from around the world have been admitted into the U.S. during the 2016 fiscal year.


According to the official website for the White House, refugees go through the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler coming to the United States. First, refugees must go through several background checks conducted by the FBI, State Department, National Counterterrorism Center, and the Department of Homeland security. After these, every time new information about an applicant surfaces, such as a previously used name or an old phone number, they have to go through background checks again, according to the site. After this there is a round of interviews with U.S. officials and fingerprints are collected. According to Baird, if at any point, there is doubt about refugees’ security risks they are turned away.

Refugees go through the most intensive screening process compared to any other immigrant to the U.S. Graphics courtesy of

If a refugee makes it past the interviews and security checks, they undergo medical screening and are matched with a sponsor agency, Baird said. The refugees that are accepted are resettled into the U.S. through one of several nonprofit agencies, such as LSS. Where they eventually end up, according to Baird, often depends on whether the refugees already have friends or family in the U.S. and what places have the best economic conditions and infrastructure to handle the influx of people.

However, being rejected from the U.N. or U.S. systems does not have to spell the end for refugees. “These people that get rejected out of the U.S. or U.N. systems, a lot of them do end up refugees in other places,” Baird said.

Being placed in a new home country is a common way for refugees to be resettled, but it is not the only way. Dahal said that there are three ways refugees can be resettled. One is the way we are familiar with in America, where a host country takes in a refugee and that is their new home. A second way is called voluntary repatriation. This is when a refugee decides that they are willing to reintegrate into their home country after what drove them out has calmed. Voluntary repatriation is the least common way for resettlement, Dahal said, because the conflicts that force these people out usually last for decades. The last way resettlement happens, and also the most common, is integration into the host country where the refugee first fled to. For an example of the last resettlement option, turn to Nepal. Nepal has a refugee camp with many Bhutanese refugees, and Nepal is the most popular country for those refugees to resettle in, Dahal said.

The United States is currently the only country that accepts refugees from Iraq, according to Dahal. This means for Alghanimi, being accepted for resettlement by the U.S. was his only hope of living a safe life. Luckily for him, he was accepted.

Alghanimi has been in Fargo now for more than two years. Working with refugees, which was the reason he was targeted by the Taliban in Iraq, is something he continues to do in the U.S. Now he works with LSS as a translator, enjoying the biggest perk of his new job: safety.


This piece was written by Concordia College student Tyler Aldous as part of an Investigating and Narrating the News course taught by Catherine McMullen during the Spring of 2016. To learn more about this project and read additional stories, visit their website at

Community partnership helps refugees adjust and succeed

Community partnership helps refugees adjust and succeed

This is one in a series of articles written by eleven Concordia College students during a semester-long advanced reporting class taught by Catherine McMullen at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN. These pieces explore refugee resettlement in the Fargo-Moorhead area. As an introduction to this project, McMullen states that these articles “…do not attempt to provide the definitive study on the topic, but rather explore various aspects of refugee resettlement through the stories of people who know the topic on a first-hand and deeply personal basis.” Read more here.

Every refugee who resettles in Fargo-Moorhead makes the same first stop on their journey to become a part of the community:  Lutheran Social Services. But that’s not where it ends. There are many stops New Americans can make to receive support so that assimilating to life in Fargo-Moorhead is a bit easier.

Lutheran Social Services helps approximately 400 refugees resettle in North Dakota each year. After all the paperwork is signed at LSS, refugees need assistance from the community too, which they receive from numerous community partnerships and nonprofits around Fargo-Moorhead. Several organizations, volunteers, and community members provide those extra steps to New Americans after LSS has done their work. Often times, they even partner together. The LSS website reports that in 2015, 113 volunteers donated over 10,000 hours of service to assist LSS in resettlement work.

“The volunteer agencies who were responsible for the resettlement work discovered early on that in order to be most effective with resettlement there had to be community support for integrating individuals who were resettled into the community,” said Shirley Dykshoorn, vice president for senior and humanitarian services at LSS.

Dykshoorn was also the State Refugee Coordinator in North Dakota in the 1980’s. These volunteer agencies, including LSS, have since been dedicated to finding New Americans support for learning English, gaining employment, and finding housing.

Fargo-Moorhead is home to New Americans from several different countries such as Bhutan, Sudan, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, and Iraq. Dykshoorn said that most of the time when a refugee comes to the country the only possessions that they have are the clothes on their backs and a bag of medical records and paperwork for LSS. Everything else has to be provided by LSS or the community so that the New Americans can become self-sufficient individuals.

LSS provides refugees with the basics like housing, coats, groceries, job placement, and education right away, but it takes much more than that. “What refugees need most is to feel welcome and feel a source of support,” Dykshoorn said. “Money is not enough.”

Changes in the process

Darci Asche, Director of Development at the New American Consortium for Wellness and Empowerment Center (WE Center) has assisted refugees for most of her life and noticed how the refugee resettlement processes in the community has changed over the years.

“Back then (1980’s) refugees couldn’t come to the US without a church sponsor,” Asche said.

Asche grew up in small town in North Dakota where the local Catholic Church started assisting refugees after the Vietnam War. Her family hosted one of the New American families and Asche began helping them with English. She then joined the Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to help refugees. After that, Asche was led to LSS where she began to volunteer. Later she received a full time position and for 20 years was head of refugee resettlement and foster care. She later joined the WE Center to be a part of the resources available to refugees after LSS.

Several nonprofits in town are dedicated to the growth and development of the New American population in a variety of ways, such as the New American Consortium of Wellness and Empowerment, CHARISM (Community of Homes And Resources in Service to Many), and Growing Together Community Gardens. Each one provides New Americans with their secondary steps in being a part of the community.

“LSS helps New Americans with registration and government help and paperwork, (and) we offer resources like life skills and building relationships in the community,” said Andrea Jang, community outreach coordinator for CHARISM.

Even though the agencies have different roles, all have similar elements. They provide New Americans with a chance to have more education, build relationships, and receive necessities to live a full life in the community.

The WE Center: A place for nurturing

The New American Consortium of Wellness and Empowerment, or WE Center, is one of the newest organizations, which started because of “mutual and unique needs of the Bhutanese, Somali, and African populations,” Asche said.

The WE Center is actually a partnership between five refugee community organizations: the African Initiative for Progress, the Somali Community Development Center of North Dakota, the Bhutanese Community in Fargo, the Global Youth United, and the Giving + Learning Foundation.*

“We provide a place for them in their own ethnic groups outside their apartments while also giving them a chance to connect with more communities,” Asche said.

The Consortium is built upon two pillars. The first is wellness—physical, spiritual, and emotional. Physical wellness is reached through health education, youth soccer programs, a partnership with Growing Together Gardens, and mental and physical healing through yoga classes. Spiritual wellness at the WE Center means art classes and cultural conversations. Emotional wellness refers refugees to different health services.

Women helping each other to study for the citizenship tests at the WE center. Photo by Paige Olson.
Women helping each other study for the citizenship tests at the WE Center.

The second pillar is all about empowerment through education, socialization, and occupation assistance. Educational and social empowerment opportunities include ELL classes and language exchanges where New Americans can teach other members from different cultures in their native tongue. They also provide afterschool programs, summer mentoring assistance, citizenship classes, and immigration services. Occupational empowerment is provided through job skill development like resume building, mock interviews, and employment referrals.

“We started plugging ideas for what the WE Center would be and what their (refugees) needs were,” Asche said, “Leadership and development was needed to connect with greater community of refugees needs.”

CHARISM: Building community and relationships

CHARISM was created 22 years ago by local churches and the Community Homes subsidized housing complex in South Fargo. Their first goal was to provide programming for low-income families in the neighborhood. Once refugees started moving into the area, the needs of the community shifted. That’s when CHARISM began offering services primarily to New Americans and their families. Today, their overall mission is building connections with the neighborhood.

“We’re really relationship based, like a big family,” Jang said. “I started out volunteering three hours a week with the grocery assistance program, became addicted to helping families, so quit my full time job at NDSU and started working here.”

CHARISM’s programs for New Americans serve people from over 23 countries such as Nepal, Bhutan, and several African countries, Jang said. They have afterschool programs for youth, tutoring and citizenship classes, STEM and English programs, grocery assistance, and a gardening program which Growing Together helped get started.

Each class has around 20 students who learn more than just English. Jang said the classes teach girls and boys about their different strengths.

CHARISM holds many opportunities for New Americans. Submitted.
CHARISM hosts an event for New Americans. Photo courtesy of CHARISM’s Facebook page.

Partnerships with the other community programs for New Americans are also important to CHARISM. Carl Ben Eielson and Discovery Middle Schools, the YWCA, Fargo Park District, Fargo Police Department, Community Homes, and Great Plains Food Bank are all connected with CHARISM’s work with refugees.

“We wouldn’t be able to function without them,” Jang said.

Great Plains Food Bank delivers all of the nonperishable items to CHARISM to assist with their grocery program. According to their website, each Tuesday and Friday residents in need from the neighborhood can go to CHARISM and receive the donated food.

CHARISM offers several volunteer opportunities. Paid positions are available for mentors and tutors, and they always need people to help out with the grocery program Jang said.

Giving goes both ways

More assistance for New Americans include the people and places such as the Fargo Rotarians, Agassiz Adult Learning Center and Carl Ben Eielson schools, Olivet Lutheran and Bethel Evangelical Free churches.

Asche identified the two major challenges for New Americans to be learning English and transportation. That’s why so much of the help from the community includes opportunities to gain better speaking, reading, and writing skills as well as transportation services.

According to the LSS website, The Rotarians donate computers, language software, and time to teach English to New Americans. Carl Ben, Discovery, and Agassiz are a few of many schools that have ELL classes for New American students.

Programs like Project Boaz assist in the transportation need. Olivet Lutheran Church and Bethel Evangelical Free Church team up every summer with their community and congregations to work together by collecting and restoring bicycles for New Americans.

“This is such a wonderful and tangible way that the community gives back,” Dykshoorn said.

Olivet Lutheran is also part of creating the Growing Together Community Gardens. The gardens offer New Americans a chance to work on one six community gardens where they get a chance to meet other refugees and native Fargo-Moorhead people and gain fresh veggies that they helped plant.

There are endless stops New Americans can make in this community to receive the skills and necessities to succeed, but there is just one other thing they need to become successful.

“We need everyone to have an open mind and treat them just as we would any other neighbor,” Jang said “People need to realize that they are so hardworking and really want to succeed here.”

This piece was written by Concordia College student Paige Olson as part of an Investigating and Narrating the News course during the Spring of 2016 where all students reported on refugee issues and stories in Fargo-Moorhead. To learn more about this project and read additional stories, visit their website at

*Editor’s Note: The WE Center’s member organizations are currently African Initiative for Progress, the Djibouti Community, Global Youth United, and Giving + Learning.