North Dakota was full of surprises.
I had visited 49 states before I entered seminary, and on the weekend I defended my theses, David and I rented a car to drive from St. Paul, MN to Fargo, ND, just to mark the state off my list.
This time to Fargo was a LOT more fun 🙂
I got to spend several days in Fargo, learning about the town’s recent work with refugees through Lutheran Social Services, and visiting First Sudanese Lutheran Church.
But, I also got to spend the day in Mrs. Leah Juelke’s English Language Learning Class, specifically designed for teenagers who are recent arrivals to the U.S. She actually won an award for her work with ELL students. You can see the link here. She has been working with students to write their stories, in English, so that we can learn about their refugee journeys. The book got a lot of local press in Fargo, and you can read more about it here.
Two students from Iraq spoke with me. “You’re from Michigan? Is it true that there are street signs in Arabic there??!!” Yes, there are! I assured them. In Dearborn, Detroit, and Hamtramck, there are so many immigrants from the Middle East that we think it’s normal to see some Arabic signs, stores, and mosques around town. The boys decided they might like to visit Detroit, MI, but they prefer living in Fargo. “We might not learn English if we lived there – and we might not make a lot of friends from other places.”
The students in Cindy Benson’s and Leah Juelke’s ELL classes really do meet friends from all over the globe. “Native” Fargo residents sometimes join them to help with their English. There are immigrants from Bangladesh, Iraq, Congo, and Mexico mixed in together. They have to learn English to speak to one another, and they seem to like it.
Osman told me his story, and I helped him edit his essay. Good Trade 🙂 His mom is a designer in Eritrea. One day, he came home to find her hiding under furniture in their home. Police officers had come to the home, seeking a bribe, demanding that she turn over Oman to the police, because he had committed a crime. Even though Oman claims he did not do that, there was nothing his mom could do to protect him, except help him to escape. He ran for the border with Somalia, but he was kidnapped with several other young adults by a human trafficker, who took them across the border into Egypt. Omar escaped from the traffickers, but now he had no paperwork, no money, no water, and no idea where he was. He managed to find a small Egyptian shop owner who took pity on him. That man bought Omar a bus ticket to Cairo. In the capital city, he had no money for rent, food, or clothes, and he had no identification papers to enter a UN – sponsored refugee center.
A British-based refugee charity found him in the subway and helped him.
It was 18 months of work in Cairo to get Omar a bed in a shelter, identification papers, some English classes, and a refugee application. Eventually, Omar won his refugee case, and was resettled to Fargo. Now, he is happy to tell Americans his story.
Omar loves Fargo, and the US. Why?
“FREE SCHOOL. GOOD JOB.”
Omar senses that I’m not as excited as I should be to hear about his life in Fargo. Maybe I didn’t hear him the first time?
“I get to go to school for free. Every day. The school is clean, and safe, and I get lunch and make friends, and the teachers are nice. And, I’m learning English. For Free. ”
“I also work. I have a good job at Taco Bell. I work hard, and my boss is kind. And, I get paid every time. Each time I work, I will be treated well, and I will be paid. I like to work.”
Omar is right. I didn’t understand at first. Because, as an American, I take free schools and workers’ rights for granted. I forget that generations of immigrants in America fought for the blessings we get today. I forgot that in most countries, working regular hours for regular pay is highly irregular. I forgot that in most countries, education costs more money than most parents have available to pay. I needed to hear Omar’s story.
Mrs. Cindy’s class also wanted to practice their English to tell me their stories. Some are refugees and some are immigrants. Their stories are exciting, and interesting, and remind me of the immigration stories we tell of our ancestors.
- Diane was born in Rwanda, but grew up in Kenya, because her mom is from Congo. She wants to learn English and then be a nurse in the US. She didn’t know any white people until she came to North Dakota, so she is trying to remember most of us are nice, like her teachers. 🙂
- Aisha is from Libera. Her mom was in the US for 6 years, but she and her brother had to stay with a friend in Libera during that time. Even though English is the official language of Nigeria, she prefers the good schools in the US. She also wants to be a nurse.
- Tan is from Vietnam. He lives with his uncle who has been here for 13 years. He came to the US at the age of 15 to learn and to be “rich” 🙂
- Gentir was born in Congo, but left because of war. He is one of 6 children in his family. When the war came to their village, his dad made a difficult decision: the family would not survive if all 8 stayed together. So, the children were split into 3 groups, walking to separate refugee camps in Uganda and Kenya. The parents stayed in Congo, trying to protect the family’s home. He and his brother received refugee resettlement to the United States; because his brother is over 18, they could travel together.
- Zack was born in Somalia, but grew up in Malasia, because his dad had a job there. His whole family came to the US together, and he is glad they are all safe.
- Pacifique was born in Congo, but lived in Nairobi Kenya for 6 years. She’s only been here 1 month, and can’t yet tell her story in English very well. (She didn’t want to be in the picture, either. I think she didn’t understand who I am or what I was doing.)
The stories remind me why I do this work – they remind me of stories from the Bible, from history, from my own family, and from the human story. We are people on the move. We are people seeking safety, security, family unity, education, and opportunity.