A not-so-natural process: Becoming a U.S. citizen

A not-so-natural process: Becoming a U.S. citizen

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.


Sun glistened through the windows of Concordia College’s Centrum on April 4, adding brightness to an already joyous occasion. More than 216 New Americans were about to realize their long-held dreams—to become U.S. citizens.

According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website, the U.S.A. naturalizes 680,000 new U.S citizens each year. These new citizens then enjoy the same rights as every other American, such as voting and serving on juries.

Few people know how arduous the task is for those seeking citizenship. It’s a six-step process: I-94 form, green card, fingerprinting, test preparation, the test itself, and finally, the naturalization ceremony. There are no shortcuts to this system and it will take an applicant around six years of work and waiting to accomplish. Just ask New American citizen Gat-kier Machar.


Machar became a U.S. citizen in 2006, six years after arriving from a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya.

“If you don’t understand the process you will be frustrated,” Machar said. “If you don’t read the instructions well, you will be wasting your money.”

His process began with the I-94, a form meant to keep track of the arrival and departure of those considered aliens of the United States.

“The I-94 is temporary status,” Machar said. “You then have nine or so months to apply for what they call a green card, which gives you permanent status to live here as long as you want.”

The I-94 is no longer used and was replaced by a similar system called the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which serves the same purpose as the I-94 did.

Obtaining the green card is the most time consuming of the steps in the naturalization process. After 10 months’ time, when you’re ESTA has expired, if one has chosen to apply for their green card, it takes two to three months for the government to process the green card application. With the application, one must provide an array of personal information, including name, date of birth, and specific information regarding the USCIS district one is applying from.

The two-to-three month process can be an unnerving waiting period, and for some it is a process that seems to never have an ending.

Marko Rout is a friend of Machar’s from his time associated with a group formerly known as “unaccompanied minors,” according to Machar. The group is more commonly known as “The Lost Boys of the Sudan,” more than 20,000 boys who were removed from their homes and families during the Sudanese Civil War, which begin in 1983 and lasted 22 years. Marko currently lives in Grand Forks, ND, where he has been working on gaining his green card since 2011. Along with the application, there are 50 questions an applicant must answer and send in with the request. Marko’s past has led to some difficulties in the process.

“Because I was forced into being a child soldier during the war, they think I am a part of a government organization back in South Sudan,” Rout said. “I call every three months to check in, and am sent a letter back saying ‘inadmissible.’”

Rout is dealing with a particularly difficult factor in the naturalization process, getting ahold of government workers for clarification. Gat-kier Machar said this has been an issue with immigration since his naturalization process.

“A human being with a little brain, and a little heart would give him an answer,” said Machar of the unresponsiveness in Rout’s application process. “If you call, you’ll be on the phone with them and you know what they’ll tell you? ‘Check online.’”

Rout has taken a different approach for help in clarifying unclear information regarding his green card forms. He has been working with several University of North Dakota law students as well as with the Swanson Law Firm out of Grand Forks. Both are examples of outside resources available to those in the process of naturalization.


After a successful green card application, there is a five-year waiting period until someone is qualified to apply for a U.S citizenship. The next step after passing the five-year window is to get your fingerprints taken by the government. Again, the common theme of waiting arises and yet again the applicant is asked to wait six months until they receive the print results.

For an immigrant in a brand new country, lengthy waiting periods can be filled with instability. Nepali refugee Ram Adhikari lived in four different states during his citizenship application period. The tricky part for someone in Ram’s shoes comes in monitoring all this travel for the U.S government.

“You have to provide them with proof of places where you lived,” Adhikari said. “Exact time, exact date. When you moved in and when you moved out.”

To further complicate Adhikari’s process, the government requires a specific travel log of anytime you leave the country. Ram had relatives in Canada during his first five years in the U.S, and he visited them many times. Each trip would consist of a detailed travel log as well as some form of proof he actually went where he said. He then needed to send all this to the USCIS each time he returned into the U.S.

“One time they sent my application back to me saying that they needed more proof [about one specific trip to Canada], Adhikari said. “Finally I found my plane ticket and we sorted it out.”


After submitting the fingerprints, the citizen-in-training is given a booklet with 200 questions and a DVD. These are the study materials one needs to prepare for the citizenship test, which is the final task in the process of becoming new U.S citizens. The four-to-six month waiting period associated with the fingerprint process is allocated as study time.

Many refugees, like Ram Adhikari, arrive and remain alone for quite some time in America. Keeping their heads above water, let alone studying for an exam they are given only two shots at, adds heat to a pot of water ready to boil.

“The application for the exam costs you $680 dollars,” Adhikari said. “If you fail a portion of the test, you can retake that portion in four to five months. If you fail again, you have to start the whole process over.”

Even though a refugee may feel alone in this endeavor, there is help out there. Ram received help from the IRC, or International Rescue Committee, when he arrived in California. The IRC is similar Lutheran Social Services here in Fargo, as they both offer specific assistance with refugees and immigrants who are having difficulty adjusting to their new country.

Mock citizenship examinations are available online from the USCIS website, but an even more comprehensive way to prepare for the exam is to take the citizenship classes offered across the country. In Fargo, Agassiz Adult Learning and Lutheran Social Services offer weekly sessions for free to those who are working on gaining their citizenship.

Nancy Halilovic helps teach the classes at Agassiz, and has done so for 15 years. Originally a middle school, its hallways are now adorned with the flags of hundreds of different countries. Halilovic is greeted by bright, unfamiliar faces of many different races of people. Men and women from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa to name a few, sit in a horseshoe shaped alignment of tables in the center of the room.

Each student is given a yellow handbook titled “Citizenship Information.” In it are 61 pages of material, including pronunciation guidance for reading questions, sentences to practice for the writing portion, the structure of the government, and even an exact copy of the Naturalization form, which itself takes up 21 pages.

The class meets every Tuesday and Thursday from noon to 2:30 p.m. During this time Halilovic and the class will go through, for example, over 40 different dictation sentences ranging from “citizens can vote,” to “Lincoln was the President during the Civil War.” Halilovic may also read aloud questions for the class to answer, just as they would have to do in the question and answer portion of their citizenship examination.

“What are the first three words of the U.S Constitution?” she asks.

“We the people!” The class answers as a resounding whole.


The test itself is a maximum of 20 questions, and is completed one-on-one with an immigration officer. There are three different kinds of questions one may see on the exam: writing, question/answer and dictation, where the applicant is asked to read a sentence aloud.

Topics for the three categories have a wide range. American government, history, rights and responsibilities, even holidays and national symbols may come up on the test. Even as a U.S. born citizen, I found myself humbled by some of the questions.  

Of Adhikari’s exam questions, two of them were about George Washington.

“I was asked who the first president of the United States was,” Adhikari said. “And I was asked which President was on the dollar bill.”

Adhikari then gestured for me to answer.

“Washington,” I said.

He smiled a cheesy smile and nodded.

Gat-kier Machar was posed a much trickier question:

“Who said this quote, ‘Give me liberty or give me death?’”

Again, my interviewee posed this as a question for me. I was completely blanked. So I guessed George Washington.

Machar smiled and rolled his head back laughing.

“The answer is Patrick Henry,” said Machar, holding back his giggling.


At this point in the citizenship journey, not including the time it takes to get a green card, someone who has passed the exam is looking at over six years of work towards achieving this goal. But after a passing exam, there is a massive sigh of relief, as only the excitement and sense of accomplishment that goes along with a naturalization ceremony remains.

According to the U.S District Court website, each district schedules three ceremonies a month at different venues, and are led by justices of each district.

The current Chief U.S. District Judge for the District of Minnesota is Concordia College graduate John Tunheim, who is particularly fond of participating in naturalization ceremonies.

 “I enjoy them,” Tunheim said. “I usually do seven or eight a year, and in total, I have done around 150 ceremonies.”

Even though the majority of the ceremonies Tunheim has led came while he was a district judge, he has continued to partake in them since beginning his seven-year term as Chief District Judge last July.

Tunheim made the pilgrimage to Concordia’s most recent naturalization ceremony in April, where he led the ceremony in the Centrum.

After an opening statement from Concordia’s President William Craft, Tunheim addressed a full house of New Americans, their families and other patrons interested in the ceremony.

“Every day there are ceremonies just like this, so you all will only hold the distinction of newest American citizens for about ten minutes,” Tunheim said. “Do not forget where you came from, but you have an obligation to this country now to be active and productive citizens of the United States of America.”

Individuals were asked to stand as their names and country of birth were read aloud, to the raucous applause of the entire chamber.

The room stirred with excitement as each name and country was announced.

Thirty-three different countries were represented at the ceremony, with India and Iraq receiving perhaps the loudest of ovations from the crowd.

After the men and women were recognized, those pledging for citizenship were asked to repeat after Judge Tunheim. When taking the oath, one must pledge to renounce allegiance to any nations of previous citizenship, declare to support and defend the U.S. Constitution, and agree to bear arms on behalf of the United States.

There was a collective sigh of achievement once the oath was completed.

A brief video message from President Barack Obama followed the oath, accompanied by videos of other naturalization ceremonies from the past. Obama welcomed the new citizens, and spoke briefly on the opportunities and responsibilities that comes with being a U.S citizen.

As the ceremony approached its climax, the newest U.S citizens were asked to take out the small American flags they had all been given upon entering the Centrum. The chamber was illuminated by the flapping and waving of 216 different flags of stars and stripes.    

The ceremony culminated with the entire chamber joining together in The Pledge of Allegiance. Upon finishing, the new citizens embraced their family and friends in a state of jubilation for what they had just accomplished.

“There is a lot of emotion, even for people who haven’t had recent difficulties that have led them to become U.S citizens,” Tunheim said. “Some have lived here for 30 to 40 years and it’s still emotional for them.”

Machar would agree.

“Our journey was pretty rough for us,” Machar said, remembering his feelings after his naturalization. “A lot of us shed tears.”

“There were people from 46 different countries at my ceremony,” Adhikari said. “That’s 46 different countries which means 46 different stories from each of them.”

Powerful emotions reign supreme after completing such a toiling process for Adhikari, Machar and other refugees from the past and present. It is a process worth the frustration and hours of waiting to become weaved into the tapestry of a country founded by immigrants and made for opportunity. It is a chance to leave behind what for many, like Machar, was pain and sorrow, and start fresh.


This piece was written by Concordia College student Ben Gislason 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 http://newamericanfm.wix.com/read

New Americans walk long road to self-sufficiency

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 http://newamericanfm.wix.com/read

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 http://newamericanfm.wix.com/read

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 http://newamericanfm.wix.com/read

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