As immigrants stream to suburbs, leaders dig deep to meet their needs

A woman stands near a metal fence at a softball field.
Mayor Maria Regan Gonzalez poses for a portrait on Monday, July 29, 2019 at Taft Park in Richfield, Minn. Regan Gonzalez plans to convert some of the park's softball fields into soccer fields.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and will be sharing stories between and

Softball and baseball once dominated life in Twin Cities suburban parks. Everyone played, and the fields were packed.

These days, though, it’s a different kind of ball luring suburbanites to the park. Soccer is the sport in demand now, driven by a growing number of immigrants and refugees leaving Minneapolis and St. Paul for first-ring towns like Richfield.

“The need for soccer fields has increased drastically, and so we are looking at converting two of our softball fields into soccer fields to help balance that and meet the need,” said Maria Regan Gonzalez, who was elected last year as Richfield’s mayor.

Other facets of Richfield’s government are also getting an international makeover. Gonzalez said the city’s resident outreach now includes more messaging in both Spanish and English, along with information posted in ethnic grocery stores.

Richfield’s practical approach can be seen in cities across the metro area. Suburban communities are working increasingly to understand and meet the needs of a growing immigrant population on everything from sports to language to navigating parking restrictions.

“In some ways, I think some suburban communities are having to learn newer lessons as a larger part of their population hails from different parts of the world,” said Andi Egbert, senior research associate with the APM Research Lab, a sister organization of MPR News specializing in analysis of demographics and surveys.

“It could be everything from thinking about how students need different accommodations for those who do need to learn English,” she said. “It could be a different way of doing things at city hall.”

‘Grateful we are here’

In recent years, several first, second and even some third-ring suburbs in the Twin Cities have seen their populations of foreign-born residents spike. The latest census data has shown double-digit increases over the past two to three decades in many communities.

In Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park and Hopkins, more than 20 percent of residents are foreign born.

In Fridley, it’s more than 17 percent, including Shaheed Safi.

The 34-year-old came to the U.S. in 2014 after working as an interpreter and cultural advisor for coalition forces in Afghanistan, his home country. Cooperating with the U.S. military as a contractor brought up safety concerns, so Safi was granted a special visa to come to America and establish a new life for himself and his family.

Given a choice of where to live, Safi chose Minnesota because a friend had moved here. But the move to the Midwest wasn’t easy. “Adjusting to the environment, adjusting to the people. It was a challenge,” he said.

With the help of the International Institute of Minnesota, a group that aids immigrants in their transition to the U.S., Safi and his family settled in Coon Rapids where they moved into an apartment.

Safi quickly landed a job as a bank teller. He later took over as general manager at Midwest Food and Meat Distribution and the family bought a home in nearby Fridley.

There were also roadblocks. The family didn’t have a car right away. So, without any guidance, they had to learn how public transportation worked. Figuring out the maps, how to pay, and routes that added two-hours to various trips were huge obstacles.

Outside of some help from the Institute, along with the occasional neighbor, there wasn’t any outreach at the local level to make sure his family was finding their way, he said.

Language was also a struggle. Because of his work as an interpreter, Safi had little trouble communicating with people in his new community. But his wife and kids did not speak English, making the transition much harder for them.

The kids eventually learned English through their charter school, but it’s something Safi’s wife still struggles with.

“After five years, still she cannot speak English,” said Safi. “That was a problem from the government side. It would be highly appreciated if someone helped on that side.”

Despite the challenges, Safi said he was happy for the stability he and his family found in Minnesota compared to his native Afghanistan. “We are grateful we are here in peace.”

A boy wearing shorts and a t-shirt runs after a soccer ball in a field.
Emiliano Islas, 12, plays soccer with his 15-year-old cousin, Paul Castro (not pictured) at Taft Park on Monday, July 29, 2019 in Richfield, Minn.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Making the adjustment

While immigrant and refugee growth has leveled off somewhat in Minneapolis and St. Paul following major spikes in the 1990s and early 2000s, suburban areas are still getting used to the changes, Egbert said.

Some are working hard at it. In Fridley, Safi’s community, the city’s police and fire departments have reached out to a local mosque to let attendees know more about local resources.

In Roseville, where there’s been significant growth in the population of Karen people — refugees from Myanmar — local leaders have been lauded for their approach to making life easier for immigrants.

That includes a more personal style of outreach, that’s less intimidating and more welcoming, said city manager Patrick Trudgeon.

“There are barriers in trust in government. They perhaps come from countries where they may be persecuted or the government was not totally ethical,” Trudgeon said. “So we’ve made some conscious efforts to really go out there and engage them directly — where they live, where they work.”

That means not solely relying on traditional municipal outreach tools, such as a public meeting comment session. The city started doing things like handing out door hangers in different languages when seeking feedback on how to best handle snow emergency notices. It built a new park in a residential area where many immigrants live.

It’s also taken steps to ensure immigrants are well aware of their rights when renting homes.

Roseville and Richfield are working now with the League of Minnesota Cities in a national program to train municipalities on how to advance racial equity through local government.

“One of those areas that we’re really looking at is making sure that we are much more inclusive and broad in our hiring practices,” said Gonzalez, the Richfield mayor. “[We want] to hire folks and promote folks within the city who speak different languages and who really reflect the diversity of our city.”

As the numbers of new arrivals grow, neighborhood groups and family networks in immigrant communities are becoming increasingly important to helping new arrivals in the suburbs.

“They’ll often help us find housing that we may have not been able to find on our own [for a client],” said Micaela Schuneman, director of refugee services at the International Institute of Minnesota. “They’ll either co-sign, or they’ll talk to their landlord and say ‘hey, we can vouch for this person.’”

As more people from his native country come to the area, Safi says he tries to ensure they get the help with the variety of tasks that might seem small, but are pretty significant for someone who is new to this country.

“Taking to the grocery [stores], driver’s license, access to the car, all those basic necessities. When I first came, that wasn’t the case,” said Safi. “Now, if someone from the same background comes [here], at least two to five people go to welcome them at the airport.”

And when those new arrivals get settled, they might receive a welcome from their local government, too.

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