MaryAnn Harris is the Multicultural Health Equity Coordinator for the New American Consortium for Wellness and Empowerment. She is the pillar for “wellness” in the organization and will be working hard to reduce health disparities for African and African American people in the region. Read the NDSU story . Photo courtesy NDSU.
Maryann Harris is resilient. When she moved to Fargo four years ago, she began working in Sanford’s critical care unit. “I decided too many people are dying and too many people are just really sick. … I didn’t feel like that’s what I wanted to do, so I switched to prevention,” Harris said. Harris graduated with a Master’s in Public Health this last Spring from NDSU. Instead of walking away from a stressful situation, Harris resolved to pursue a different direction.
Harris described this resiliency: “Back home, you’re taught to aim for the sky. And sometimes even though that is not in focus—you don’t even know if that’s gonna happen or not—but you just grow up hearing it. And it gives you that idea that there’s something beyond this place and [you] want to access it. And then when you come here [the US], with all that in your head, it’s very hard for you to just sit down and not do anything. So you find yourself pushing through even when you have tough times.… This is the goal and you have everything in you to accomplish it.”
As a founding member of the New American Consortium for Wellness and Empowerment, Harris’s resiliency has served her well. In addition to her studies at NDSU, Harris volunteers 40 hours per week at the Consortium’s office and programming space, the WE Center. She is the Consortium’s program director, and has established programs including in-school mentoring, and is currently working to create more volunteering and social opportunities. She is also available to help with the miscellaneous needs of those who come to the WE Center. The need for volunteers is most apparent when there are more people in the WE Center who need help than can be helped. From the Consortium’s website: the WE Center is named for wellness and empowerment, but also for “we,” a community.
Sitting with Harris, it becomes clear just how important the community and cultural aspect is to the WE Center.
Harris had a crash course in culture clash when she emigrated from Liberia in 2002, at age sixteen. She was enrolled in the school system mid-semester. Harris already knew English and could understand her teachers, but due to her accent she had to speak slowly to be understood by her teachers and peers. The rules of respect were different, too. The first time she saw someone talk back to a teacher, she was shocked that it had happened. She was even more surprised when instead of disciplining the student, all the teacher could do was send him out of the class. Her accent and cultural habits had an isolating effect, and she felt like an outsider in her school. Math was Harris’s strong subject, and eventually it helped her to build friendships.
Harris recalled her first day of math class in the US. All the textbooks had been handed out for the semester, and there were no extras left over. Someone would have to share with her. No one volunteered to share resulting in the teacher having to assign someone to share their textbook with her. “She didn’t really look happy, but she did [share].” Harris said. As the class period went on, Harris seemed to know the answer to every question. After the first exam, grades were posted alongside each student’s ID number. Harris had busted the curve. Her classmates found out, and that’s how she started to make friends.
As the eldest of five, Harris saw first-hand the unique ways that different age groups adapt to a new culture. Harris came to the US with her parents and siblings. She believes that younger children have the easiest time of it. “There’s not a lot of things kids, American kids their age, would do differently. So it’s easy,” Harris said. Older adults often don’t do much adapting at all aside from language acquisition, since they had already developed their ideas and habits in their native culture. Teenagers, though, have a foot in both worlds. They aren’t set in their ways like their parents and grandparents, but they have invested much more time into the old culture than the younger ones have. Harris said the things that a teenager doesn’t change, the things they carry with them even into a new culture, says a lot about their beliefs and who they are. “That is a value that you just can’t compromise on,” Harris said.
Some of the values Harris hasn’t compromised on since coming to America include her resiliency, sense of community, and respect for elders. Many New Americans hold on to similar values. They build close-knit ethnic communities within the host community. The WE Center’s idea of community involves integrating the ethnic and host communities, in a way that empowers New Americans and enriches Fargo culture.
To help with integration, the WE Center hosts cultural events. Harris explained that many New Americans don’t speak English well, and to be misunderstood is embarrassing. It’s a struggle to be understood, so it’s easier to stay at home and avoid the situation. With cultural events, the host community comes into the multicultural setting, and the dynamic is shifted. Within the WE Center, someone can take the time to explain part of their culture, something familiar to them in a comfortable setting, and this begins to build relationships with the host community. “You can see someone somewhere else … and be like ‘I remember you, we had a little chat.’” Harris said.
It’s the little things that make the biggest difference when integrating a community. For many New Americans, what they need most isn’t an academic tutor. The WE Center provides multiple resources and opportunities to help New Americans effectively integrate themselves into Fargo. There are often participating in these efforts, and the WE Center is always on the lookout for new volunteers. Harris said she has helped so many people understand their taxes that she had to turn some away. Practical conversation practice is important, too. It involves talking through typical daily conversation that might happen at school, at work, at the store, or other common settings. Even something as simple as being available to drive someone to a doctor’s appointment, accompany them to the grocery store, or recommend a business can have a huge positive impact.
Through her work with the New American Consortium for Wellness and Empowerment, Maryann Harris has helped to support Fargo’s New American communities, to integrate them into the larger Fargo community, and to empower individuals to better their lives. Harris’s resilience, the resilience that many New Americans bring with them, is a driving force in Fargo’s growing multicultural community.
Written by North Dakota State University English students Erika Fieldhammer, Alex Lien, and Afton Samson
Lending a helping hand in the journey from isolation to connection
Laxman Adhikari was only two and a half years old when civil war spread in Bhutan and he was torn from his home. Bhutan’s government declared Buddhism the official religion; Laxman and many others from the Hindu community were forced to leave the country. Many years spent in a Nepal refugee camp gave Laxman an emotional understanding of the distressing journey that many New American’s have faced. “They feel so lonely, like I feel before when I first come to the United States. I feel so lonely and miss so many friends, it’s so difficult to get adapted to a new community.”
Laxman is motivated through his experiences to help others adapt to their new communities. He passionately calls to others to help him in his quest. “Come and join me and help our community in the rainy days.”
Each member of Laxman’s family was uniquely affected by the Civil war in Bhutan, leaving their way of life behind. His grandfather was a senator of the country at the time. One of his uncles worked in the health field and another uncle was a college professor. His mother and father owned a large, simple farm in Bhutan. When they were forced to leave they had to give up their animals, their house, and their property. Laxman’s memory of the exile is limited, but he recalls the agony of his family members as they fled their homes. “It’s kind of pretty difficult for them to tolerate all this big pain because they got to sacrifice everything… and carry the little kids in their arms and leave the country with their eyes full of tears.”
After leaving Bhutan, Laxman and his family traveled west to Nepal. Laxman talks of the difficulty they faced upon arriving in Nepal. “When they first come to Nepal, they don’t get enough to eat, actually they get a palm full of rice and they got to live their life with a palm full of rice”
“Leave the country with their eyes full of tears”
Laxman spent 19 years in a Nepal refugee camp, receiving an education from Caritas Nepal, an organization close to his heart. Despite the restrictions of the camp, Laxman received two years of a bachelor’s degree while in Nepal. Life was not easy, their community was built out of tents. “Plastic and bamboo sticks and the flooring is mud. Sometimes when the wind comes it blows everything and we got to re-establish the same kind of camp, need to help our community members too. It’s kind of difficult. If I start remembering all of these things it makes me cry.”
Before coming to the United States, many New Americans have an image in their mind of what it will be like. Laxman’s own image of the United States was that of a “crazy California” and a “cold North Dakota”. The transition to California proved to be a hectic one for Laxman. The resettlement services he was provided were limited; he was left to complete paperwork and applications on his own. It took him almost 6 months to find a job. “It’s pretty difficult to find a job in California actually. I used to have an old bike that time and I used to ride the bike all day and carrying my resume in the back just going to every single store and saying ‘do you guys have job?’”
Eventually, Laxman found a job as a cashier at a small gas station. Slowly, he began going to college and received an Associate’s Degree of Massage Therapy. Laxman continued his journey, moving from California to North Dakota.
North Dakota is surely cold, as Laxman has stated, but it still offers the warm comforts of home. The streets of Fargo consist of a variety of culturally specific markets. Finding their culture in Fargo allows New Americans to reform their image of what it’s like to live in the United States. “Their culture is still alive, so there’s nothing bad about moving to the United States,” Laxman says.
Laxman’s own culture is still prominent in his life, while also being involved in the Fargo community holding two full time jobs. As a patient representative for the Family HealthCare Center, Laxman connected with his now wife. They were able to have a traditional wedding, making them man and wife by their cultural standards. Although still needing to fill out the legal marriage documents, Laxman happily states that while in Fargo “he got his girl”. “Fargo gave me a lot, I got to be more thankful for Fargo than I did to California… I find my girl. I like her when I first saw her. Love at first sight.” Laxman hopes to see others realize that the community can help them find the comforts of home.
Due to this passion, he became involved in the WE Center. Laxman is able to see the challenges presented to New Americans in their transition, having faced many difficulties in California. He recognizes the importance of communication; tutoring and simple conversation can make a big difference. Laxman is familiar with the isolation that language barriers can cause. The WE Center supports this by assisting in job applications, citizenship tutoring, and everyday tasks such as grocery shopping.
“Got to live their life with a palm full of rice”
Frustration with the struggles faced in common tasks can lead to a feeling of isolation in New Americans. Connecting in our solitude bridges the divide between cultures. The WE Center allows New Americans to interact with people in their community, creating friendships that establish networks. It also enables Fargo community members to help New Americans regain control of their lives and uplift their spirits. Laxman believes that everyone can relate to the feeling of loneliness. New Americans in the community face troubles similar to Americans everywhere. Emotion is universal; solitude in sorrow is not exclusive. “Yeah we have the same kind of issues. We have the same problems.” Fargo community members can help New Americans navigate our unfamiliar city.
Unfamiliarity can be frightening. Laxman would like to see a social movement to end isolation and hopelessness in many New Americans of the Fargo community. Images of the hardship that have brought these New Americans to tears in the past come back to them daily. Laxman calls to volunteers to spend time with them. Share the pain, share the tears, and give them hope to create a new image. As a refugee who has made the journey from Nepal to the United States and has felt isolation and found connection, Laxman calls to the community to come together and stand palm-in-palm. “Motivate them, give some kind of inspiration, and [tell them], ‘you’re going to be all right tomorrow.’”
Written by North Dakota State University English students Ashley McCoy, Samantha Hamernick, and Nicholas Breault
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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.
“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
Fawzia Riji came to America as a refugee at the tender age of eight. Due to this, she has a unique perspective on the struggles of the refugees who are trying to adjust to the Fargo community-she has personally seen the fears and challenges that must be gone through in order to find safety in America. In an effort to give back to the Fargo community and help refugees, Fawzia has found a passion volunteering for the Wellness & Empowerment Center. Her compassion is shown through patience when helping the refugees do tasks such as learning to speak English. She reassures them that “they will get there eventually” when they are struggling to grasp the language. Fawzia gets a great sense of happiness and accomplishment from the small victories she see amongst the refugees. When looking to the future of the WE Center she couldn’t highlight the need for volunteers enough. Fawzia gives as much of her time as she possibly can to volunteering but still wishes she could do more. She says she wishes there were more volunteers to match the growing number of people wanting to learn and that even a small amount of your time could make a huge difference for those who are struggling. It was inspiring to hear about her gratitude for those who are willing to help and work with those coming in from different countries. Fawzia insisted that there are a lot of people who are kindhearted in the Fargo area and they are paving the way for a welcoming community. As she stated, “Giving back is always important, but I most enjoy the connection I have with the people.”
This compassion and need to give back likely developed as Fawzia made her own difficult journey to the United States as her family fled from a war torn country. Her story begins in 1991 where she was born in Sudan. Unlike most small children who begin their childhood playing games and discovering new things, Fawzia’s was wrecked with turmoil. At a very young age her country became violently affected by civil war. During this chaotic time, Fawzia’s father was taken by the war in the Sudan never to be seen again, “My father died in the war..Well actually we just never saw him again but when that happens in the civil war it’s just assumed that they died,” Fawzia says with the straightforward assertiveness. It is this attitude that served her well as she made the transition from Africa to America. The start of this transition began when her family moved from the Sudan to Uganda. Fawzia was too young to remember the Sudan but Uganda became her home. She recalls the warmth of the sun and family gatherings, the delicious food and wonderful friends. Unfortunately, her brief oasis was short-lived her family again had to move, this time to Kenya. Fawzia’s older sister had made it to the United States for her education and it was during this same time that the rest of her family had relocated to Kenya. It was becoming evident that the family needed to leave the country and so it was up to Fawzia’s sister to make that happen. This process is much easier said than done and takes many resources to accomplish. First, Fawzia’s sister was faced with the task of finding her family in a war torn country before she could begin tackling the countless other challenges she faced on the long road to getting her family to safety. Not only is transferring refugees a heavy financial burden but those responsible must also navigate through mounds of paperwork full of complicated governmental jargon. This would prove to be a difficult challenge for a native English speaker, let alone someone who does not share it as their first language.
Once the finances and paperwork were complete, Fawzia and her family still had to undergo rigorous interviews, health exams and background checks before being allowed into their new country. Finally after 2 years of challenges and setbacks young Fawzia, her siblings and mother were on their way to Fargo, North Dakota. Imagine coming to a new place far from anything you knew that was familiar. Now imagine that place was Fargo, ND in January. She looks back to that new and scary time in her small 8 year old life when the plane first touched down, “when we first got to Hector airport they gave us heavy coats I didn’t know why but they told us that we would need them. When I first saw the snow I held onto my mother and asked “is that sugar?” The bleakness of the traditional North Dakota white out winter scared Fawzia most, but it wasn’t long before she was making new positive memories in her new home. Due to the unstable atmosphere of her home country, Fawzia had not yet started school when she came to America. Nonetheless she was permitted to enter the 1st grade halfway through the term and from there continued with her class as normal, graduating high school easily despite starting her education late. From there Fawzia continued her education, receiving her bachelor’s degree and soon after entering graduate school to earn her master’s degree in composition.
Today, Fawzia’s life is filled with a different kind of stress. The man that would later become Fawzia’s husband remained in Africa, going through the same arduous process that she did so many years before. Being on the other side of things was no less stressful for Fawzia. Working long hours to earn enough money to bring him over to America to be with her was not an easy task while at the same time she pursued a B.S. in English and Human Development and Family Science with a minor in Women and Gender Studies. All the longs hours paid off, with her husband eventually immigrating to the United States. They married in 2011 back in Africa. In May of 2014 she graduated from North Dakota State University. Shortly after graduating she gave birth to a baby boy.
Her main concern is no longer safety, but rather time. Like most Americans, especially college students, Fawzia juggles a lot of roles. She is a graduate student and teacher, mother and wife, and a practicing Muslim, all while also trying to find time to give back to the Fargo refugee community. When asked about what she does for fun, Fawzia was unable to give an answer. Fun is not a word Fawzia uses to describe her own life. Her grueling course load as a graduate student–she is taking ten credits despite conventional wisdom telling her not to–leaves little time for fun. Add in grading papers, exams, and preparing lesson plans, and you have what many people would consider a busy life. However, life does not stop at just academia for Fawzia. She is also a loving mother to a little boy and devout to both her husband and her faith. With everything Fawzia is involved with jockeying for her time and effort, she says that if she can get “One or two hours of sleep” then that will be enough. This all makes it ever so special when she is able to sit down and eat breakfast with her son on the weekend. This simple moment, a moment most Americans would overlook, is something she cherishes.
Written by North Dakota State University English students Jensina Davis, Jessica Heuer, and Zachary Liu
The life of an immigrant is not always easy. Before and after the transition to their new country they can feel alone in an unfamiliar setting. The help of other people can lessen this burden and help smooth the transition. That is the work of the Wellness and Empowerment Center in Fargo, North Dakota.
Recently we sat down with Brigitte Bisimwa, an employee at the WE Center and asked about her life and moving to America. Her story was one of perseverance and overcoming obstacles. If Brigitte’s story inspires you in any way please consider volunteering your time and energy towards this great cause.
There are many opportunities in America that cannot be found in other countries. One local woman and her family felt the pull of the American Dream and made the long voyage to America. They fled from corrupt governments, a bloody civil war, and a weak economy in search of a better life in a far off land. They faced many hardships, but resettled in the Fargo-Moorhead area. She is now working to better herself and help other immigrants in her community through their trials.
Brigitte Bisimwa was born into a large family in the Congo. She had mom, dad, nine sisters, and four brothers. Brigitte expressed a love for her family in the Congo.
Life was not always easy in the Congo “You just survived with what you got” Brigitte commented. There were volatile politics, fighting with rebel groups, an unstable economy, and a high rate of HIV. Due to these facts of life, Brigitte and her family decided to leave the Congo in 1998. Her family moved to Kenya where they lived in a refugee camp.
Brigitte and her family faced unique challenges in the refugee camp. There was a gross lack of privacy. “You neighbor can come to your place anytime” Brigitte said. Her neighbors would often come to her if they did not have enough food.
Brigitte’s time in the refugee camp was always meant to be a stop on her journey to a better life. After staying in the Kenyan refugee camp for 9 years, Brigitte, her husband, and their children began the immigration process to the United States with the help of a member of the Fargo-Moorhead community.
It is easier to get into the United States if you know someone who is already living here. Luckily, Brigitte’s family knew Dr. Kevin Brooks who is a professor at North Dakota State University. Dr. Brooks is an activist with the New American population in Fargo. “We gave the name of Kevin Brooks, he is a nice person” Brigitte said.
“We got to know each other well enough that he [Brigitte’s husband, Jacques] identified me as an “anchor” in the United States, and that seemed to help the family’s resettlement process” Dr. Brooks said.
Once Brigitte settled in Fargo, Kevin Brooks contacted her about a group he was helping to start. This group would act as a support for refugees and new Americans in the Fargo/Moorhead area. This group was titled the Wellness and Empowerment Center.
Brigitte now works for the WE Center. She gives assistance to lots of immigrants in the Fargo-Moorhead area as they start their new lives in the United States. Brigitte helps families find local housing according to their income. She also informs immigrants on the specific laws in the United States that may vary from their native countries. Basically, she helps immigrants in whatever way she can.
The WE Center is a fantastic program that truly touches many lives in the Fargo/Moorhead area. The WE Center offers tutoring services to local immigrant families. They tutor students from elementary to adult on a wide variety of subjects.
Brigitte stated rather profoundly, “There is bread in America.” This quote is a testament of the reach of the American Dream even outside the United States. “I don’t see why people complain because I see that you can improve yourself. You can feel safer because there is no shooting, no rebels. You have less fear for your own life,” Brigitte said.
If Brigitte’s story inspired you in any way to lend a hand, you can get in contact with the WE Center by calling (701)-478-3636. Also, consider following New American Consortium on Facebook
Written by North Dakota State University English students Randi Haarsager-Neary, Nicholas Miller, and Cordell Wagner