Resiliency and Growth in New American Communities

Resiliency and Growth in New American Communities

maryannprofileMaryann 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

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

By Refugees, For Refugees: What’s Your Role?
Christian in front of The WE Center.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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