Facing worst, Fargo's refugees turn to each other
Thursday, April 2nd 2009, 5:09 pm
FARGO, N.D. (AP) -- For some transplants to this quiet Plains city, last week's feverish rush to hold back a historic flood threat carried reminders of the chaos that forced them from their old lives.
The National Guard troops and the constant humming of military vehicles along the Red River made Amar Hussein a little nervous. He came to Fargo from Iraq after a bomb blew up his vehicle and left his arms and leg deeply scarred.
"We see the military trucks, I see people making sandbags to protect the town, I think something happened," he said.
Hussein is among more than 6,000 refugees brought to Fargo and its across-the-river neighbor, Moorhead, Minn., over the last 15 years by a Lutheran group's resettlement program. Their home countries come straight from the headlines, representing major world conflicts over the past decade: Iraq, Somalia, Liberia, Bhutan.
The flood threat has passed, the area was largely spared and life was slowly getting back to normal Thursday. But the anxiety of the last several days took a unique toll on refugees: Many of them know all about losing everything they own, and some lacked the English skills to get flood information immediately.
Elvis Tahirovic lives with seven members of his family in a trailer near the Sheyenne River, a major tributary of the swollen Red. His parents and grandfather depend on him, his two brothers and two sisters for translation. But he works two jobs waiting tables, and could't be home to keep them updated.
Instead, he left an emergency phone number on the fridge.
"In case anything happens while I'm gone," he said.
To help refugees, an agency had information sessions with translators explaining how to prepare for a flood -- things lifers here learn from birth. Stock up on food, water, blankets. Plug up the toilets to prevent water rising. Keep your eye out for evacuation orders.
Immigrants also volunteered in the flood-fighting effort and formed their own support groups, sharing food and information and finding that pitching in to save the city is a sure way to put down roots. But some admitted that they were a little startled by the whole situation.
"We see people preparing bags to go to a safe place, and we think, we don't have family here, where would we go?" said Hussein, an Iraqi mechanical engineer who settled in Fargo with his wife and year-old daughter more than a year ago.
The Red River was at 36.37 feet at midday Thursday, well above flood stage but safely below the top of Fargo's permanent floodwalls. Fargo leaders insist the danger isn't gone, but they've begun calculating their losses ahead of presumed federal disaster aid and have asked flooded-out residents to do the same.
Problems continued in outlying rural areas in North Dakota and Minnesota. In Oslo, Minn., officials used airboats to ferry supplies to people guarding their homes because roads into town were still blocked by floodwater.
These wide-open plains have long been defined by the waves of immigrants from Germany, Norway and Sweden who came to plow them under more than a century ago. In the decades that ensued, they forged the ties that make communities like Fargo resilient in the face of hardship.
It's also a safe place, friendly, and with low unemployment -- all qualities that make it a great candidate for a refugee's first home in the United States, said Sinisa Milovanovic, who directs the refugee resettlement program for Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota.
The growing immigrant population is giving Fargo a more diverse feel: Vietnamese movies are available for rent on the same commercial strip as a McDonald's, a corner market sells halal meat, and a major supermarket chain added an international section recently.
For the most part, new arrivals have been welcomed, said Richard Rathge, director of the North Dakota State Data Center.
"There is a growing proportion of elderly, and we have a labor shortage issue," he said. "They're a wonderful opportunity for increasing our labor force."
The refugee resettlement agency gives all newcomers an introduction to the area -- how to work with police, how to deal with inclement weather, the basics. They put on similar sessions during the flood.
"We explained what's coming, that they should be alert, and follow what the general population is doing," said Milovanovic.
But in an emergency situation where things change by the minute, foreigners who have difficulty understanding the news and little connection with neighbors can feel particularly anxious. The prospect of losing everything for a second time can also be deeply upsetting.
Tahirovic's family fled war-ravaged Yugoslavia with nothing in 1991. They landed in the U.S. with $27 after spending nine years in Germany.
Now the sum of the family's work over the years is contained in the trailer they share, and a car. They have no flood insurance, he said.
"We'd have to get everything over again -- and my father, he's been working very hard," he said.
But to many newcomers, facing these hard times has also forged a connection to the place, and to the people with whom they shared work and worry.
A family of six who left the fighting in Mogadishu, Somalia, formed an assembly line at the Fargodome, filling sandbags and passing them, hand to hand, to a growing pile.
"This is my home now," said Maliyun Santur, who arrived in Fargo two and a half years ago. "I'm here to save our city."