New Americans: Finding refuge in Fargo-Moorhead

New Americans in Fargo-Moorhead
Divine Lubungo (upper left), Bir Gurung, Anger Kuchlong and Hamza Nayyef arrived in the United States from four different countries in the last five years.
Ann Arbor Miller | MPR News

Families from Iraqi Kurdistan, Nepal, Vietnam, Bosnia, Albania and handful of African nations — Somalia, Sudan, Liberia, Congo, Burundi and others — have discovered an unlikely haven in the Red River Valley.

While the racial majority of the Fargo-Moorhead metro area remains overwhelmingly white — just around 90 percent, according to U.S. Census estimates — the number of foreign-born residents is slowly rising thanks to the arrival of more than 5,000 refugees from 40-plus countries over the past two decades.

"These New Americans have, for the most part, made successful transitions here, they work hard, they pay taxes, they buy homes, and they underscore the reality of life in a global culture, even here in Fargo-Moorhead," Fargo native Catherine McMullen wrote in Concordia Magazine recently. "A day doesn't pass that you don't hear at least one foreign language in the stores or on the streets."

In the schools, the prevalence of ethnic and racial diversity is even more pronounced. The area's three largest public school districts report a combined nearly 7 percent of students enrolled in English-language learner programs.

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"The changing face of our school is the changing face of our community," said Kari Yates, who runs literacy and English-language learning programs for Moorhead Public Schools.

New arrivals quickly learn that basic English skills and transportation solutions are essential bridges to employment. Those young enough to attend middle or high school say they are awed by the lack of fees and inspired by the abundance of offerings. They learn to accept America's obsession with birthdays. Most have been waiting years for a chance at a new life in the United States, and many — like these students from Moorhead High School and Fargo's South High School — are willing to share their stories.

Hamza Nayyef, 20

Hamza Nayyef
Hamza Nayyef is Kurdish, born in Duhok, Iraqi Kurdistan. He arrived in the United States in November 2010, and graduated from Moorhead High School in May 2015.
Ann Arbor Miller | MPR News

What's your American dream? "I plan on continuing to go to school until I become something. Right after that I want to go back to my country and get married maybe and then come back here. Like bring her here and just live here for the rest of my life. I know it's not going to be any better for me if I live back over there."

Hamza is mere months away from taking the naturalization test to become a U.S. citizen.

He arrived in Minnesota at the age of 15 with his parents, four siblings, a love of soccer and two cherished copies of the Quran. "It's our holy book," he said.

No other heirlooms made the long trip from Iraqi Kurdistan. "I don't think we have anything else from back there," Hamza said. "Everything we have is from here. New."

Hamza's father's work as a translator for the U.S. military in Iraq provided a gateway for the family's relocation.

"He stayed with them for over three years so we had a chance to come over here," Hamza said. "We had a choice of any state we wanted."

Minnesota quickly rose to the top of the list, thanks to a family member who had resettled in Moorhead two decades earlier.

That first winter delivered a few challenges.

Hamza had been accustomed to living in a place where snow is rare and the temperature doesn't dip below 50 degrees. In Moorhead, the average annual snowfall hovers around 50 inches — and 32 degrees above zero is considered balmy in winter months.

Unlike his father, Hamza didn't speak English — only Kurdish and Arabic. He remembers locals talking to him and not being able to understand a single word. School helped. Soccer helped more.

Hamza now relies on three languages every day. "When I'm hanging out with friends it's Arabic. At work and school it's English, and at home it's Kurdish," he said. "That's for my siblings, too."

Hamza's family has enjoyed a string of happy milestones in recent years. His two older siblings graduated from Moorhead High School. Each has married and moved out of the family's apartment. His mother gave birth to a sixth child. Hamza and a sister two years his junior graduated from Moorhead High this year.

In the fall, Hamza plans to attend Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Moorhead.

In the meantime, the 20-year-old is focused on saving $2,000 to pay for a trip to his home country.

"I just really want to go," Hamza said. "I kind of miss all my grandparents, and uncles and aunts over there."

He recently started working full-time at a local grocery store, making $12 an hour. Hamza intends to raise money for his trip this month, then travel overseas for the month of July. The dates of his trip coincide with a portion of Ramadan as well as Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month.

"Then, I'm going to come right back after that," he said. "I've already talked to my dad about this. He just said I'd have to work hard and he'd help me with whatever I need."

Bir Gurung, 19

Bir Gurung
Bir Gurung is Bhutanese, born in Sanischare, Nepal. He arrived in the United States on May 9, 2012, and attends South High School in Fargo.
Ann Arbor Miller | MPR News

What's your American dream? "My dream is to join the Navy. Since I was like 5 or 6 years I started watching movies and reading lots of books about the army and warfighting. I really get into it so I just want to be like one of them. Just to serve our country — where I came and where I want to live."

Fighting was part of Bir's life in a Nepali refugee camp.

His temper flared quickly. Daily trips to the headmaster's office at school weren't uncommon.

"When I was a kid, I was really bad," he said. "There wasn't really any rules."

Playing soccer was a welcome distraction. Bir thought little of his future.

"In Nepal, I don't really know about my goal," he said. "I don't know really what I'm going to be."

That ambivalence ended shortly after Bir, his three siblings and mother arrived in North Dakota just before midnight one night in early May 2012.

Bir remembers being dazzled by street lights, casting a constant glow into the night sky.

"In Nepal, you don't really have lights," he said. "They just keep cutting off every second."

He welcomed the existence of laws and the sense of order that they seemed to provide. He turned to cartoons on television to improve his English. He signed up for organized team sports at school: soccer, track and even wrestling.

"That's why I'm joining every single sport to be strong — to be physically strong," he said.

Ask Bir what he misses about life in Nepal, and he struggles to reply.

Ask Bir what makes him feel good and he talks about driving a silver 2008 Toyota Avalon that he and his mom share. He recently drove himself to a soccer tournament in Minnesota.

"It was really fun," he said. "That makes me happy. It encourages me to do new things."

Bir is focused on his future. He expects to graduate from South High School in Fargo in 2016.

He plans to join the National Guard while attending college, and pursue active duty afterward.

Good decisions are foremost in Bir's mind.

"I don't want to get into any trouble here," he said. "I don't want to make my life record bad."

Divine Lubungo, 17

Divine Lubungo
Divine is Congolese, born in Rutshuru, Democratic Republic of Congo. She arrived in the United States in August 2013 and attends South High School in Fargo.
Ann Arbor Miller | MPR News

What's your American dream? "I want to be a surgeon. I want to be a really great doctor so I can help people. I don't know if this is craziness, but I want to be a hero. ... I don't know yet if that dream is going to come true."

Divine was a survivor before she became a dreamer.

Her childhood in the Democratic Republic of Congo was complicated by poverty and political unrest.

"There was war," she said. "They were killing people and raping people."

Divine's father died when she was very young. Her mother didn't have the means to support a large family. She has 11 siblings — although her eldest sister died before Divine — the youngest — was conceived.

The family split up in order to conserve resources. Divine and two sisters moved from her mother's house in Rutshuru to a nearby village to live with another sister. Family reunions were reserved for holy days.

When Divine was 8 she left Congo and went to live in Uganda with her sister Zulaika and Zulaika's two children. "It's kind of weird for me to call her 'sister,' so I call her 'mom,'" said Divine, who also refers to her nephews as brothers.

At first, Divine struggled to adapt to life in Uganda thanks, in part, to a language barrier. She was also keenly aware that many Ugandans were not happy about the constant stream of Congolese and East African refugees moving to Uganda.

"Trust me, not all the people like strangers in their countries," she said.

Divine eventually made friends and attended school. Meanwhile, Zulaika hoped to bring the boys and Divine to the United States.

More than five years after Divine arrived in Uganda, Zulaika told the family at the dinner table one night that they'd be moving to the United States. Divine wrote about her journey to America a little more than a year later as part of an English class assignment at South High School.

She paused for a moment. Then she breathed in, and breathed out and said, "We are going to America in two weeks."

I couldn't ... I wouldn't believe it! I started asking myself questions. How am I going to tell my friends about this? I had told my friends that one day I would go to America, but they always thought I was joking. I was sad, scared, and happy all at the same time. ...

One week later, I was packing my suitcase. What would you bring in one suitcase? I had to pack my whole life in my suitcase. I packed some of my favorite clothes, shoes and my family picture. ...

Finally, it was time. I was so nervous and scared. I had never been in a plane it was my first time.

"Let's pray before leaving the house," my mom said.

"Aziz and Taylor, mufunge majo," I said.

So everyone closed their eyes. After praying, my mom said, "After we leave this house no one is allowed to leave my side."

"Ndiyo maman," I said, while nodding my head.

My brother kept quiet. They never listened to my mom, but that day they did.

The family of four — Divine, Zulaika and Zulaika's two boys — now lives in central Fargo not far from the place where Divine got her first part-time job. She worked the register at a fast-food restaurant a few evenings each week during the school year.

"I never thought I could have a job at this age," she said. "In my country having a job is the most difficult thing ever. ... I never imagined or dreamed I could buy myself some clothes or even pay for my phone. Seriously.

"If I could be in my country right now — and if I could be alive first of all — I don't even know what I could have been doing right now. I don't know. Maybe sitting there helping my mom. Farming? Stuff like that."

Sometimes Divine thinks of loved ones in Africa and her time there. Her mother still lives in Congo, as does one sister. At least one other sibling is in Uganda. As for the others, Divine says, "I don't know where all of them are.

"Some memories I try to forget, but it's like you just have to learn to live with it. You mostly try to erase the bad parts and stay with the good memories because you don't want to forget everything."

In the United States, she said, people have choices and options. Most of all, there is hope.

"You can become something, somebody," she said.

Anger Kuchlong, 21

Anger Kuchlong
Anger is Sudanese, born in Kakuma, Kenya. She arrived in the United States on Feb. 16, 2012, and graduated from South High School in Fargo in May.
Ann Arbor Miller | MPR News

What's your American dream? "I'm living my dream, really. I like doing handworks — the ones I can do by myself. ... When I was young I was sewing clothes. I can sell bags and clothes. I get profit on that. . ... I have to have a career — not only knowing it — but having a certificate in my hands. One day, hanging it on the wall and saying, 'I did this.' That's my dream."

Anger has never stood on Sudanese soil.

Instead, she grew up in two Kenyan refugee camps, including the Dadaab — the world's largest, which is run by the United Nations.

Anger's parents fled the war in Sudan before four children — Anger, her twin brother and two other siblings — were born. "My dad died a long time ago," Anger said.

In the camps, Anger was often hungry. "Sometimes there's no food you can eat and you are just going to sleep."

More than nourishment, Anger longed for a good education. She often arrived late to school after morning chores. Her grades were poor and the teachers inattentive. "Nobody even can sit down with you to correct you," she said.

Anger gave birth to a daughter in August 2010. She and the baby survived the birth, Anger says, thanks to a miracle: "I was in C-section. They find out that I don't have (enough) blood. ... I was about to die. Thank God that somebody just came — a Good Samaritan — and he just said he wanted to help."

Anger calls her daughter Awalithadia. The name combines her grandmother's first name, Awalith, and adia, which means 'gift' in Swahili. The baby's arrival put Anger's education on pause.

Anger says her mother never wanted to leave Africa, but after living in refugee camps for decades, moving to the United States seemed to be a good option. The family hoped for a better life. Months passed between the family's resettlement application and the first in a series of interviews.

Meanwhile, Anger started earning a small income. Her talents as a seamstress secured a job teaching other women how to sew. Work was a welcome distraction from the wait.

On a hot afternoon in early 2012, Anger and her family learned they were bound for America in one week.

Always eager for an education, Anger enrolled in school when she arrived in Fargo. Her mom cared for Awalithadia while Anger attended classes at the city's South High School.

In May, Anger received her diploma.

"I'm the first person in my family to graduate," she said. "My mom never go to school. So, it means a lot."

Anger would like to attend college. She's applied to The Art Institutes International in Minneapolis. "I want to work in fashion design," she said.

Anger is also looking at other colleges — ones that will allow her to remain near her mother, who lives in West Fargo.

"I don't want to leave my daughter behind and just go to school," she said.

Anger says she draws strength from her mother's words.

Abdikani Hassan, 17

What's your American dream? "I want to finish high school and go to college. I want to become a carpenter. I want to go to community college for two years to get a degree and then I want to transfer to another college for, like, four years. I like to work with my hands. I took a woodworking class in high school and I really liked it. I kind of feel like this is going to be the way to improve my future."

Abdikani Hassan is Somali, born in Busia, Uganda. He arrived in the United States on Dec. 11, 2013, and attends Moorhead High School. His friends and teachers call him Hassan.

Hassan knows a few things about persistence, patience and privilege.

His parents fled Somalia in 1992 and eked out a living selling tomatoes in a small Ugandan city.

Hassan and his three siblings didn't attend school. "We couldn't pay the fees," he said.

In 2008, his parents moved the family to Nakivale refugee settlement in southwestern Uganda.

"Life became a little bit hard so they decided to move to the camp so they could get help from the UN and all those folks," Hassan said.

There, Hassan's mother turned her entrepreneurial talents to selling secondhand clothes. And Hassan resumed his formal education. While not impressed with the uniforms, Hassan was pleased to attend school.

After arriving in the camp, the family began a lengthy wait to move to the United States.

A year after the family moved to the camp, Hassan's father died after a brief illness. Hassan said he is thankful for memories of his father and his father's stories. "My dad used to tell me everything from Somalia," he said.

The wait continued for another four years. Hassan remembers looking at his airline ticket and only then realizing his family was headed to a place called Virginia. They left friends behind in Nakivale, but no relatives.

Few Somali families were living in Roanoke, Va., when Hassan and his family arrived. "There were like three other Somali families," he said. "Nobody could translate for us. We didn't have any transportation. ... There was like no jobs available."

After four months in Virginia, Hassan's mom had had enough. She packed up the family and headed to Moorhead. A friend there had previously shared encouraging tidbits: plenty of jobs, good schools, little crime and most of all a small but established Somali community.

The move to Moorhead has worked out well.

Hassan recently earned his driving permit and started a summer job in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant. "I want to help my mom and also myself," he said.

Hassan wants to stay on track to graduate in 2017, so he's taking a summer-school algebra class. His brother, who also attends Moorhead High, plans to graduate next year. His two sisters now have jobs at Walmart stores in nearby Fargo. Hassan's mother stays home full-time, caring for the family.

Hassan is intent on improving his English and taking advantage of every opportunity. He says public education is a privilege and shouldn't be wasted.

"I'm going to use it for everything I can. It's like a big deal," he said. "Where I come from, there's no free high school."