New Americans walk long road to self-sufficiency

These articles were 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.

For resettlement to be successful, a community effort is needed. Graphic is courtesy of Lutheran Social Services.

Laetitia Hellerud had just fled from Burundi for the fourth and final time, but this time was different than the others. She did not go back to her home. Instead, she was given a chance to resettle in the U.S. along with six of her siblings, where they started life anew. Now, after 18 years and a lot of hard work, Hellerud has a life in Fargo. Many refugees have similar stories, and many of those stories continue here, in the F-M area.

Of the 745,000 immigrants who came to the United States in 2015, 75,000 were refugees. Refugees, unlike most immigrants, are given the right to work and stay indefinitely as soon as they arrive in the United States, said Saurav Dahal, a special programs manager at Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota. In fact, they have all the same rights as citizens except they cannot vote, have a passport, or possess a firearm.

Adjusting to life in the U.S. brings with it a whole new set of challenges. For the past eight years, around 450 refugees per year have resettled in North Dakota. When refugees resettle in the U.S., they often come with nothing as they are forced to leave all their possessions behind. In order to adjust to their new lives, they need to get into housing, start working, and be able to sustain themselves. Programs like Lutheran Social Services provide them with assistance for housing, food, and transportation, but that assistance provides only basic necessities and does not last for long.

LSS is required to give services to refugees funneled through them for five years if needed. “By services I mean anything that is not financial assistance,” Dahal said. “We are not supposed to provide families with [financial] assistance if they are here for over eight months.” LSS does not provide services to anyone who did not come legally as a refugee, which includes anyone applying for asylum.

LSS helps refugees with employment services and case management, and links them with other community partners. “This program is quite strict, because we are dealing with lives of people, lives of children and families. Also it is so interlinked with the community that we go through audits almost every year,” Dahal said.

LSS receives a one-time reimbursement of $850 for each refugee from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to an LSS report about common misconceptions about refugees. LSS can bill direct costs of the services to federal refugee contracts. Any other costs are made up through donations.

The amount of federal money that goes into the resettlement of refugees in particular is unavailable. However, the Office of Refugee Resettlement—the organization that keeps track of services refugees are provided—reports that $1.528 billion (out of the nation’s $3.23 trillion  budget) was allocated to states and non-profits in 2014 for the purpose of providing services to refugees, people with special immigrant visas, victims of trafficking, and people seeking asylum.


According to the ORR’s report, refugees as a whole have been showing improvement and effort in becoming self-sufficient. The report’s summary reads, “Comparing refugees who have been in the U.S. less than a year to those who have been in the U.S. two years or more, there are noticeable positive trends in improved English language proficiency and workforce participation, and a decreased reliance on public benefits.”

The services that LSS provides to refugees start before the plane hits the ground. By now the refugee has taken on more than $1,000 of debt, because they must pay back the money used for their plane ticket. Once LSS is told they have a refugee or a refugee family coming in they start preparing for their arrival. “That information can come in anywhere from three weeks to three days in advance,” Dahal said.

The first step is finding the individual or family a place to live. LSS does this before the New American arrives. Once LSS finds an apartment, they stock it with basic furniture and food. Enough food is given to last one week, and a meal is provided for them the night they arrive.

Within the first month of arrival, LSS provides them with a phone and sets them up with English classes. The English classes usually start within a week of arriving.

Dahal said that it is crucial for refugees to start looking for work as soon as they get here.

“We must start work on finding employment right away, because the assistance they get is not enough at all. It is recommended they get a job within four months of arrival, and if they cannot get a job within eight months refugees risk becoming homeless because there is no way of paying the rent.”

For the first year, refugees receive no housing assistance, so they must pay the market rate for rent. According to Dahal, a common myth is that refugees get free housing. “If they are working but they are within the poverty guideline they may be eligible for housing assistance and that might happen the following years, but the first year they must [pay for] their own apartment,” he said.

The apartment needs to be affordable, but it also needs to be nice to enough to live in for a long time if needed, Dahal said.

While refugees search for a job, it is common for them to use money they can get through the Refugee Cash Assistance program. According to LSS, for the first eight months they are here, or until they make enough to become ineligible for the service, refugees can get cash assistance directly from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Life for New Americans is expensive, so finding a job is a priority. Getting a job is not just for paying the bills. If a refugee does not work or go to school, they may become ineligible to receive benefits from LSS and the state.

Even refugees with college educations often start out at entry level, low wage jobs.

Hellerud, who came to the U.S. in 1998, quickly found this out. Hellerud earned a degree in English Education in her home country of Burundi.  The first job she applied for in the U.S. was a housekeeping job at a hotel, but she did not get it. “Despite the fact that I spoke five languages . . . I was told that I was not qualified,” Hellerud said. “That was hard.”


This is a common problem for refugees, according to Dahal. Their degrees are often not accepted by American employers or colleges. This means nearly all New Americans take on low-wage, low-skill jobs just so they can get by.

“It is a challenge for us to work with those [New Americans] because it is almost humiliating saying that what they should do is to find a job at a hotel or motel even though we know that they were doctors back home,” Dahal said.

Refugees often choose to go to school instead of work. Some, like Hellerud, do both at once. Getting an education is extremely important for both personal and vocational success, she said.

At the same time, LSS works with many New Americans who grew up in refugee camps and did not have the ability to work before coming to America. Dahal says these people are often eager to find a job, just because they are excited to have the privilege to work.

Refugees help fill low-wage jobs. A study from the Economic Policy Institute last year showed that 15 percent of the U.S.’s economic output could be attributed to immigrants, even though they made up only 13 percent of the total population of the U.S.

After being turned down for three other jobs, Hellerud was able to get one working the night shift at Cardinal Windows. She was not there long. Hellerud’s case manager told her about an open case manager position at Lutheran Social Services, but Hellerud was not receptive to the idea at first. “I did not want to disappoint [my case manager],” she said. “They should know if I’m not qualified to do housekeeping how can I do case management?” She did end up getting the job as a case manager.

Making money is often a huge priority for refugees, as most refugees have families they need to take care of back home. “Basically you get a phone call at 2 a.m., somebody’s dying, somebody is in the hospital, somebody needs to go to school. It’s always a crisis,” Hellerud said.

“Growing up in a society where you take care of one and other, you can’t even live with yourself if you don’t help,” she said.

It can take a long time, several years to decades, for New Americans to begin to thrive in their new communities. Due to the low wages and the difficulty finding jobs, a lot of hard work is needed on the New American’s part to live a secure life.

“We have seen families who are working two or three jobs, and that is how they are building their life,” Dahal said.

Hellerud was no stranger to working multiple jobs. After getting her job at LSS, she needed a second job. She found one at a gas station. She continued working two jobs at a time for years. At one point in 2002, despite having a son to take care of and being pregnant with another child, she continued to work two jobs so she could save for her divorce and to attend school.


LSS also helps refugees learn how to live in the new society they have moved to. Case workers are the ones who help refugees with this. According to Amar Hussein, a case worker for LSS, the case workers are the first people that a New American meet when they come to the U.S. In fact, case workers are the ones that pick up their clients from the airport. It is a 24/7 job.

Hussein described a case worker as the person a refugee goes to for advice on any and all day to day activities, and beyond that, they are close to the New Americans they work with. Hussein says questions case workers help their clients with range from “what phone company should I go with” to “can you tell me what are the benefits from having a credit card or not?

“Even right now a big struggle for our clients is transportation,” said Hussein, who is a New American himself. He also said that transportation, along with avoiding junk food in the grocery stores, was the biggest issue he and his wife faced when they came to the U.S.

Hussein, who arrived from Iraq in 2007, said he also struggled with North Dakota weather. “In 2007 we faced a really harsh winter and we never faced this much of snow . . . [We lived on] first floor which is kind of underground. When your window will be almost level with the ground and it is all covered with snow, you’re like oh ok, what is going on?”

Restarting life from scratch can be incredibly hard for the New Americans, but there have been plenty of success stories. “We have many refugee families, I’d say a few dozen now, who have bought properties here, have homes here, have businesses here,” Dahal said.

Dahal stressed that refugee resettlement is a community effort, and is a lot of help is needed for New Americans.

“We have to work with our schools,” he said. “We have to work with our healthcare providers, law enforcement, and other nonprofits and social services . . . to make sure the families do get the services they require because as we all know, these folks are fleeing persecution and violence.”

Hellerud is one of those success stories. Though she doesn’t define her success as having a lot of money, she is in a much more stable position. She has started her own business called Ubuntu Consulting, that she says is doing very well. She is also writing a book about her family and experiences. Hellerud says it took her six or seven years to feel like she was becoming successful and secure after coming to the U.S., but that it took more than money to make her feel successful.

“I want to have enough to take care of my needs and also help somebody in need,” she said. “I want to help enough to not forget where I came from. So everything after is a bonus.”

This piece was written by Concordia College student Tyler Aldous 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

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