University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Helping Refugees Adjust to Snow, Ice, & College

Run by alumna Jane Graupman, the International Institute of Minnesota teaches newcomers how to succeed in the U.S.

Photo courtesy International Institute of Minnesota

In a classroom with whiteboards on the walls, nine men and women of varying ages, all Karen refugees, gathered on a frigid winter morning for their weekly life skills class. The topic at hand was public transportation, and Ghay Hu, an encouraging and enthusiastic caseworker who is also Karen, explained that in the United States you aren’t allowed to ride on the roof of a bus or hang from its side. Hu also reminded his students to wear a hat and mittens when going outside and “walk like a penguin” to avoid slipping and falling on the ice.

That is the sort of practical advice offered at the International Institute of Minnesota in St. Paul, which has been helping immigrants and refugees adjust to life in the U.S. for the past 99 years. How to survive Minnesota winters without getting frostbite or breaking a bone is a topic of great interest to people who have spent their entire lives in the tropics.

The group nodded appreciatively, but despite the fact that the class was held in their native Karenic language, it was clear that several of them were still too disoriented and overwhelmed from their 8,000-mile journey—all were recent arrivals; some had only been here for two weeks—to take in Hu’s instructions. It was cold enough outside to make a native Minnesotan draw her jacket tighter, yet one woman was wearing Crocs with no socks. Another was barefoot in flip-flops.

The Karen are an ethnic minority from the border region of Myanmar, previously known as Burma. Like the Rohingya, they have suffered brutal and ongoing persecution by Myanmar’s military regime, which routinely invades their villages in an attempt to destroy their livelihoods by burning their homes and rice stocks. The survivors of these attacks flee into the jungle to escape being killed or raped or, an almost unimaginable horror, watching their children burned alive.

Life in the jungle is harrowing. Malaria and malnourishment are rampant. Some Karen return to their villages when the military leaves, only to be forced back after subsequent invasions. Others make their way, usually on foot, to refugee camps in Thailand, where if they are lucky, they will be among the one percent of refugees across the world who get to start afresh in a new and unfamiliar country. Because the average stay in a camp is now 17 years, many have few if any memories of life outside these temporary arrangements.

Today an unprecedented 65.6 million people worldwide have been forced from their homes, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. That includes 22.5 million refugees, who leave their countries to escape war, persecution, or a natural disaster. Over half of today’s refugees are under the age of 18. It’s a staggering number, especially when you consider that in 2010, there were fewer than half as many refugees worldwide.

“It’s truly one of the crises of our time,” says Jane Graupman (B.A. ’88), executive director of the International Institute, one of five refugee resettlement agencies in Minnesota. “Because of the increased numbers, the camps have fewer resources, which means that people do not have proper shelter, health care, food, or education.”

Introducing a New Life

The International Institute works with the U.S. Department of State to help refugees—not just from Myanmar but also Somalia and Bhutan—and immigrants adjust to life in a new place. Refugees are met at the airport and taken to an apartment or house that has been rented for them, where a warm, culturally appropriate meal is waiting and the refrigerator is stocked. They also receive 90 days of case management services, which include English and life skills classes as well as job counseling and support to help navigate the local school and college systems.

What they don’t receive, according to Graupman, are ongoing, refugee-specific government payments, despite public perceptions to the contrary. “The only benefit refugees get is a one-time grant of $950 per person,” she says. Graupman, who has been with the International Institute for 28 years, seven as its executive director, wields facts and figures with assurance. Yet, the human costs that underline her work seem never to be far from her thoughts. “In the United States, refugees are required to pay back the price of their airfare, so if you are coming from Africa or East Asia, it’s unlikely that grant will cover your travel expenses.”

The support provided by the Institute, which comes from donations and private sources as well as government grants, is crucial for people who have suffered trauma and displacement. “It’s such a scary process to come to a new place with a new culture and new language,” says Hamdi Maalin (B.A. ’17), who came to Minnesota 11 years ago from Somalia. “There’s always that struggle to keep your identity and previous life and wanting to adapt. But it’s not easy to open up and say, ‘I’m having a difficult time.’”

Maalin’s journey began in 1995, after her younger brother was killed by a bomb that hit a neighbor’s house in Mogadishu in the early days of Somalia’s civil war. Following that tragedy, her parents fled on foot with their surviving nine children, first to Kenya and then to a refugee camp in Uganda. All told, it took them 11 years get to Minnesota.

As a global studies major at the University of Minnesota, Maalin was required to complete 100 hours of internship work for a course she took on human rights. Given her experience as a refugee, the Institute felt like a natural fit. After graduation, her work as an intern led to a full-time job. Today, she splits her time between the receptionist’s desk and as a case aid.

Maalin believes her role at the Institute gives newcomers hope that they too will adjust to their new lives. “I see my family in our clients from East Africa and Somalia,” she says. “I remember how difficult it was and how long it took us to settle and make [minnesota] our home.”

Uncertain Times

Last fall, President Trump’s administration set new limits on the number of refugees who are allowed to enter the U.S. In addition to a cap of 45,000 individuals per year—less than half the number allowed in 2016, and the lowest since 1980—there was a pause on arrivals from 11 countries, including Somalia, while the administration implemented more stringent vetting policies.

Minnesota, a state known for being welcoming to immigrants and refugees, is expected to be especially impacted by these changes. By the end of 2017, fewer than 950 refugees had arrived in Minnesota, compared with more than 3,000 in 2016. That decrease led to layoffs at the International Institute, including of Karen case worker Ghay Hu, whom Graupman praises for his hard work. She hopes to rehire him someday.

The decline in refugee arrivals worries Graupman. “I think it’s very healthy to have debates about the pros and cons of immigration policy in this country,” she says. “But what concerns me is that elected officials at the national level are saying things that aren’t true.” To counter the narrative that refugees are dangerous and take advantage of America’s welfare system, Graupman points to studies that show immigrants are healthier and commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans. A recent draft report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, rejected by Trump administration officials, found that even considering public benefit payouts, refugees accounted for a $63 billion net gain to the U.S. economy between 2005 and 2014.

“New Americans come here with a lot of desires,” says Graupman, who cites the Institute’s medical careers pathway as an example of refugees and immigrants helping to fill a worker shortage in a critical field. “They come to the U.S. ready to work hard and are part of the economic engine of the country.”

To help newcomers enter the job market, the International Institute offers a wide range of tutorials, including English for Work classes, computer skills workshops that teach Microsoft Word and internet basics, and career pathways training in hospitality and health care. Its College Readiness Academy provides preparation for nursing assistants who want to advance their careers and lawyers, engineers, and teachers who need retraining and certification in their new country.

It’s a program that was instrumental in the education of Zaki Omar, who arrived in Minnesota in 2014 from Somalia and turned to the Institute for help navigating the state’s higher education system. The Institute recommended he start at the Hubbs Center, an adult education program run by the St. Paul Public Schools. He then advanced to courses at St. Paul College before transferring to the U’s Carlson School where, with scholarship support, he is currently majoring in entrepreneurial management. “I knew a lot of students who were taking classes with no clear understanding of how to go to college,” he says. “[The Institute] was like my encyclopedia. I’d have questions and I’d get very clear answers to all of them.”

It was the middle of finals and, like hundreds of his fellow students, Omar, who is 32, was taking a study break in the basement of Wilson Library. Dressed in a maroon and gold jacket over a Gopher polo shirt, he exuded the kind of hard-won school spirit that can sometimes be lost on undergraduates who arrive at the U via more conventional paths.

“When I moved here I was surprised by all the opportunities in Minnesota,” Omar says. “The International Institute helped me figure out how to get what I need to do what I want to do.”

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