Communities Face Challenges In Embracing New Cultures

By Bennett Daviss
American News Service

Long before the Red River flooded its surrounding plains, Fargo, N.D., was already coping with a different kind of rising tide.

More and more migrant Hispanic farm workers have been settling in this farming region of 155,000, which also includes Moorhead, Minn. They are attracted by work in light-assembly and sugar-beet-processing plants and low housing costs. Two church-related social service agencies are also relocating refugees here from Iran, Somalia, Bosnia, Armenia, Haiti and other trouble spots.

The Fargo-Moorhead area's immigrant population doubled to four percent during the 1980s and promises to double again before the turn of the century. In a region where outsiders have long been few, the new arrivals sparked a growing unease.

"There were concerns about crime and increasing welfare rolls," says Yoke-Sim Gunaratne, a Malaysian who worked for Lutheran Social Services in Fargo to resettle refugees.

"Local leaders were seeing signs of rising frustration and racial intolerance. They knew they needed a strategy to prepare the community for what was becoming its future."

Gunaratne now heads the Fargo area's Cultural Diversity Project, a pioneering four-year effort funded by the Pew Charitable Trust to help small towns learn to welcome and accommodate diversity instead of fearing it.

The need is clear. Scores of smaller cities and towns across the United States are facing issues of ethnic diversity for the first time in decades.

According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the U.S. government dispersed more than 100,000 refugees across the country last year. At the same time, like native-born Americans, immigrants are leaving crime-plagued inner cities in search of a better life -- and later often bring family members from their native lands.

The 1 million people who immigrate to the United States each year -- an estimated one-third illegally -- are not entirely welcomed. In a February 1996 Roper poll, 70 percent of Americans surveyed favored slashing legal immigration to less than 300,000 a year -- less than half of current legal limits.

In Storm Lake, Iowa, a meat packer imported hundreds of Mexican workers. The town's 8,700 residents had to provide an expensive English as a Second Language curriculum in schools and foot health care bills of injured workers not yet eligible for the packing company's insurance plan. Crime, confrontation and resentment festered.

Wausau, Wisconsin, a quiet city of 37,000, hosted hundreds of Laotian refugees. In the early 1990s, 70 percent of the new arrivals were receiving public assistance. Property taxes in 1992 rose 10.48 percent -- three times the regional average -- to cope with schooling the immigrant children.

"Immigration has inspired racism here that I never thought we had," one public official said.

While no area has yet found a way to solve the practical problems that come with immigration, Fargo is determined to avoid the interracial tensions those problems can bring -- and that often erect barriers of prejudice to workable solutions.

As residents tell it, the story of the recent flooding is one of not only neighbor helping neighbor, but of people crossing lines of color and national origin.

"You saw it in the streets," said Sonia Hohnadel, who is living temporarily in a hotel room with her husband and two daughters, because of water damage to their home near Moorhead. "People just wanted to help, regardless of color, regardless of who needed the help. It was beautiful to see."

Hohnadel, a Mexican-American whose husband is of Norwegian descent, gives a slice of the credit to the Cultural Diversity Project, which has provided ethnic-sensitivity training for teachers, social service workers and corporate employees. It also offers leadership seminars to prepare minority representatives for spots on public boards and committees and matches candidates with Anglo mentors.

The project strives to show immigrants' human faces. It sponsors an annual cultural festival at which all cultural groups offer their native foods and music. "We showcase the skills and crafts each group brings to the community," Gunaratne says. "It's a nonthreatening way to bring people together."

And when people come together, attitudes can begin to change.

"Until you hear personal stories, you don't deal with people as individuals," says Hohnadel, a social worker who has taken part in the events. "A Somali woman talked about what she went through to save herself and her kids. When you hear that, you realize that we all have the same needs, the same wants, the same heart."

Hohnadel pauses. "Thanks to the program, there's more acceptance and openness now. We're dispelling ignorance one person at a time."

Posted July 7, 1997

Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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