COL Number of African refugees is climbing

The number of refugees immigrating to Rochester is rising sharply for the first time since Sept. 11, 2001, according to Deacon Gordon Richard, director of Catholic Charities, the area's refugee resettlement service.

Refugees from the civil wars in Somalia, Cambodia and Bosnia arrived in Rochester at a rate of about 250 a year throughout the 1990s and in 2000 and 2001, Richard said. After 9/11, fear of terrorists infiltrating the immigrant stream caused the Department of Homeland Security and other federal and state agencies to crack down on refugee arrivals nationwide.

"We're busy again," Richard said. At the present pace, the Rochester area will become home to 230 refugees in 2003. About 75 percent of them are Somalis, 20 percent Sudanese and about 5 percent (a dozen people) will be Hmongs from the group of 5,000 Hmongs immigrating to Minnesota this year.

Only 30 refugees immigrated to Rochester in 2002, and fewer than 100 came in 2003. This year, though, the U.S. State Department, the United Nations and many immigration groups have succeeded in loosening restrictions to allow more refugees to settle here.

Rochester's booming refugee arrivals echo a similar national trend. By federal law, the United States allows 70,000 refugees to enter each year for humanitarian and political reasons. That number dipped to 27,508 in 2002 but is on pace to hit 90,000 refugee arrivals in fiscal year 2005. The excess over 70,000 includes those whose cases were approved earlier but not allowed to immigrate because of the 9/11 crackdown.


Somalis have been Rochester's largest immigrant refugee group for the past decade. Most fled their country after 1991, when civil war broke out, and resettled in refugee camps in northern Kenya. Many Somalis moving to the Rochester area this year are thus not coming directly from Somalia but from Nairobi or a Kenyan refugee camp.

"The children of these refugees were often born in Kenya and speak Swahili or English better than they speak Somali," Richard said. The 2000 U.S. Census lists 1,290 Somalis in Olmsted County. About 25,000 Somalis live in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota State Demographic Center, although Somalis estimate that number is higher.

War in Sudan

Most Sudanese immigrants are refugees of the Sudan civil war, in which the fundamentalist Islamic government of Sudan has for two decades fought primarily Christian tribes in the south for control of that area. Generally, Sudanese refugees are members of the Dinka and Nuer tribes and have spent several years living in Cairo before resettling in the United States.

Four years ago, Minnesota changed its immigration procedures and now allows resettlement agencies, which run primarily on state funds, only to provide service to refugees who are reuniting with families who already live here.

Thus, all refugees have an "anchor host" who can provide a home and shelter for the newest arrivals and tide them over until they learn English, if they need to, and find a job. Catholic Charities gives each arriving refugee $400 and an introductory orientation session, and works with them for 90 days.

During that time a Catholic Charities case worker accompanies each new refugee on trips to the city-county Government Center to get a Social Security number; to apply for food stamps and medical assistance; and to place them in an English class at the Adult Literacy Center at Hawthorne School.

A $600 bonus is offered to those who land a job within 60 days.


Mary Alessio is one of the Catholic Charities case workers who accompany Rochester's newest citizens to job interviews.

"Driving with a Sudanese gentleman the other day, he told me about several weeks he spent in an Egyptian prison," Alessio recalls. "The cell was about the size of my desk, and he was beat up and his teeth were knocked out, and it was totally dark. He couldn't tell if it was night or day.

"Then, just this morning driving to work, I noticed how beautiful the autumn trees were, all red and orange and yellow. Everything was a little brighter, having heard these stories.

"When people ask me how can I do this job, I tell them that whatever I give to these people, I get back two or three times over. They are not here to be takers; they are here to be givers. And, I think, just because we all have it so good right now and don't need any help, who says that will always be so?

"That's why I joked with the Sudanese gentleman, 'Good luck, because you may be a supervisor one day, and I'll be coming to you for a job.'"

Global Rochester is written by local free-lance writer Douglas McGill, who also produces a Web log called the McGill Report ( His e-mail address is

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