Few Syrians expected in Minnesota, agencies say

MINNEAPOLIS -- Even though Minnesota has long been a haven for refugees, local resettlement agencies say it is unlikely the state will see an influx of people now fleeing the Middle East and North Africa, at least initially.

MINNEAPOLIS -- Even though Minnesota has long been a haven for refugees, local resettlement agencies say it is unlikely the state will see an influx of people now fleeing the Middle East and North Africa, at least initially.

With the latest refugee crisis unfolding across Europe, President Barack Obama last week recommended that the United States over the next year welcome 10,000 displaced Syrians fleeing war.

“With information we have now, I don’t anticipate we’re going to have huge influx of Syrians here in Minnesota,” said Kristine Bjerkaas Friesen, director of Refugee Services for the Minnesota Council of Churches, based in Minneapolis, one of five local nonprofit organizations that resettle refugees in the state.

One reason is that the Minnesota pipeline already is full of people forced out of other countries by older international conflicts. Minnesota has resettled about 2,000 refugees annually over the past five years, 90 percent following family members who already settled here, called “family reunification cases.” The majority of these are Somali and ethnic Karen from Myanmar.

“Nationally, there is process of allocating cases geographically,” said Bjerkaas Friesen. “It’s not that we wouldn’t be able to resettle a Syrian refugee, but there may be other sites around the country that have less of their pipeline taken up.”


Many factors go into where a refugee is sent once they’ve been vetted and receive permission to enter the United States, including the availability of housing, employment and interpreters.

“I don’t think it’s likely we’ll see a large number of Syrians here, but that can change,” said Jane Graupman, executive director of the International Institute of Minnesota, in St. Paul, which this year will resettle about 470 refugees of various ethnicities in the state. “It just takes one or two families to move and say, ‘Oh gosh, there are jobs in Minnesota,’ and then other families come.”

Refugees tend to settle in established communities that share their ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Syrians have ended up around Detroit and southeastern Michigan, for example, where a flourishing Arab-American community has swelled by nearly 20,000 Iraqi refugees arriving over the past decade.

Since 2011, when the Syrian civil war began, 1,658 refugees have been relocated in the United States, according to the State Department. The majority moved to Texas (196), California (171), Michigan (170), Illinois (142), Arizona (114) and Florida (100).

Minnesota, which does not have a large Arab-American presence, welcomed only two Syrian families this year. Two individuals were sent to Richfield and a family of five settled in Rochester.

September has been the busiest month in recent years for local refugee resettlement agencies, as a surge of mostly Karen and Somali people have arrived as the end of the State Department’s fiscal year nears.

Over the past year, Minnesota has welcomed people from two-dozen countries, including Ethiopia, Iraq and Moldovia. The number of Karen refugees is expected to taper off in the next couple of years as camps close along the border of Thailand, Graupman said. Meanwhile, several agencies say they are preparing to welcome Congolese refugees fleeing war in Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Obama administration will announce by Oct. 1 the total number of refugees to be allowed into the United States over the next fiscal year, including the final number from Syria.


“If we see 10,000 Syrians next year, I’d say Minnesota would see a couple dozen families,” said Bob Oehrig, executive director of Arrive Ministries in Richfield, affiliated with the Christian humanitarian organization World Relief. “But if those numbers increase significantly, then we’ll see our share.”

And in the long run, Syrian refugees could be attracted to Minnesota by the same things that drew the Somali, Hmong and Karen.

“Minnesotans have been welcoming to refugees, so it feels like a comfortable place to stay,” Graupman said. “We have housing and we have employment. We have great language programs and job-training programs. It’s a great community to receive refugees.”

Refugee or migrant? Here’s a primer

Minnesota has a long history of resettlement of refugees, dating back to World War II, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

Now, tens of thousands of people from the Middle East and Africa are seeking safety in Europe at great risk. Many of them are from Syria; many will make their way to America.

So what does this all mean for Minnesota, and what is a refugee anyway?

What is a refugee?


The terms refugee and migrant have been used interchangeably to describe the crisis in Europe, but are they the same?

A refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country,” according to the 1951 Refugee Convention from the United Nations. Basically, refugees are those forced to leave their country to escape war, persecution or natural disaster.

The U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees defines a migrant as someone who chooses to move in order to improve the future prospects of themselves and their families.

What’s happening in Syria?

Syria is in its fifth year of a brutal civil war that has led to 4 million Syrians seeking refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. More than 11 million Syrians have been internally displaced, meaning they can no longer live in their homes but still live in the country. Now, many Syrian refugees are fleeing to Europe.

The UNHCR says that a quarter of Syria’s schools and half the country’s hospitals have been destroyed in the conflict.

What refugees live in Minnesota?

Among the groups that have made Minnesota home are Bhutanese from the former Soviet Union, Hmong from Laos, Iraqis, Karen from Burma, Liberians and Somalis. Last year alone, about 2,000 refugees were settled in Minnesota, according to the Department of Human Services.


How do refugees end up here?

Richfield-based Arrive Ministries outlines a 13-step process that all refugees must go through before they come to the U.S. In short, each refugee goes through a series of agencies including the UNHCR, the U.S. Embassy, the State Department, the FBI and the CIA.

All refugees are then resettled through an agency that has a contract with the federal government to provide basic services for refugees during their first 90 days on American soil. In Minnesota, those agencies are:

  • International Institute of Minnesota;
  • Arrive Ministries;
  • Minnesota Council of Churches Refugee Services;
  • Catholic Charities Diocese of St. Paul Migration and Refugee Services/Catholic Charities Diocese of Winona Refugee Resettlement Program;
  • Lutheran Social Services.

Compiled by Katie Kather

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