Rochester, MN: Refugees see first snow

The timing of this story is perfect in light of Mr. Ralph Parker’s comment about why we don’t tell the good stories about refugees.  I had this article in my queue two days ago, but a reader sent it this morning and that reminded me to post it.   We have often joked on these pages about how the mainstream media writes a template story I have often called ‘refugees see first snow’ stories.   This one is literally one of those stories.

This is the general outline: refugees arrive in some frigid city from some southern clime; they are trying to adjust; there are many column inches devoted to telling about their horrible former lives, but then they see their first snow and they marvel at it.  Then everything is going to be just wonderful in America thanks to the good people in the resettlement business.

From the Twin Cities Daily Planet, a column by Doug McGill, begins:

Since Feras Alkaisi, his wife Sulaf, and their two young children moved here four months ago, they’ve experienced a lot of firsts – backyard barbecues, a casino (Treasure Island), carnival rides (at the Mall of America), watching football on TV, and last week, falling snow.

“I saw snow once before but it was on the ground and just a little bit,” Feras recalls. “I never saw snow falling through the air until last week.” He paused for a moment to take in the new memory, then a question occurred.

“Is it often cold in Minnesota ?”

Incidentally, there is mention in this article that the family was originally told they were going to Boston, but were, at the last minute, switched to Rochester, MN.  That’s because Boston is overloaded with refugees and the IRC resettlement office was closed there.

Back to my story, Rochester, MN is a “welcoming” city and many more refugees will be coming soon:

The 16 new Iraqi families in Rochester comprise 77 people, with another 100 or so Iraqi refugees planning to resettle in Rochester in the coming year, according to Catholic Charities, the local non-profit that handles refugee resettlement. Some 32,655 Iraqis have resettled in the U.S. in the past two years.

After many column inches devoted to telling the former tragic lives of the family comes this wrap-up:

Sipping Sulaf’s strong black coffee, his two children tucked into bed by 8 p.m., Feras relaxes on his living room sofa. He asks me to be sure that in this story he can publicly thank the local Catholic Charities office for resettling his family.

“They’ve done so much for us,” he says.

He smiles broadly as Sulaf brings out glasses of 7-Up to follow our coffee. But a weariness creeps into his voice as he tells his story of escape from war.

This is the sort of mushy reporting that requires the balancing that RRW provides!

Hints that everything is not peachy in Rochester.

This is an article from the same paper a week ago that says to me everyone is not so “welcoming” in Rochester.   The local Catholic Charities director deals with tough questions at a Kiwanis meeting by falling back to the usual guilt-trip the audience strategy.

When Mary Alessio gave a speech at the Kiwanis Club in Rochester last summer, she was shaken when she looked out at her audience and saw dozens of men who looked exactly like her father – row upon row of her father, one father per seat.

“My father’s a tough critic,” Alessio recalls, “and here I was giving a talk to a whole room filled with him.”

To make matters worse for her, Alessio was speaking that day about a topic she knew her father would ask some very demanding questions about – the resettlement of refugees from the world’s most troubled war zones to here in Rochester, Minnesota.

Alessio knows a lot about the subject because she is Director of Refugee Resettlement in Rochester for Catholic Charities, the not-for-profit agency that has resettled thousands of refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq and other countries gutted by violence, war and famine over the years to this town.

Sure enough, when the Q & A started, one of her fathers out in the audience immediately raised his hand and fired away.

“We have enough problems taking care of people right here in the United States,” he demanded. “Why don’t we focus on solving that instead of taking in all these new people for a short time and then just dropping them?”

There’s no surefire answer to that question, as Alessio has discovered over the past five years, first as a case worker and then leading the agency in its basic daily work of guiding new refugee arrivals through a jam-packed 90-to-180 day resettlement process.

How does she answer—with the standard “welcoming/you should feel guilty for asking” response.

But the larger answer to why Rochester is home to so many refugees is Rochester itself. Because of its success at absorbing them, more have been attracted to come.*


At her Kiwanis speech, Alessio didn’t hesitate when answering her tough first question.

“We have to remember what our country was founded on,” she said. “We began as a home to immigrants. We were founded on the idea of welcoming the stranger. That’s what makes this country great.”

* Attracted to come?  The refugees don’t pick where they go anyway, it’s Catholic Charities calling the shots—not the refugees, not the city government, not the citizens of the neighborhoods where refugees are resettled,  not even the State Department (until a problem develops).

You can be sure I’ll be keeping an eye out for more news about refugees in Rochester!

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