Officials, advocates contemplate future of refugee resettlement in N.D.

Alexandra Kautzman

BISMARCK, N.D. – On Jan. 25, Gov. Doug Burgum announced that the state Department of Human Services will administer the refugee resettlement program after Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota unexpectedly shut down.

DOH Executive Director Chris Jones said while the shift was abrupt, the department is working hard to make sure that there is not a gap in required services. He said DOH will work with LSS’s former partners and employees.

More:UND student shares her experiences as a resettled refugee

Jones said he expects that Human Services will help coordinate with another existing nonprofit that will eventually be able to take over the program.

Kobe Kessler, 14, and his mom, Denise, bike through North Dakota on part of a 4,200-mile  ride to raise money for South Sudan refugees. Denise Kessler is a 1982 Okemos High School graduate.

“Our short-term goal is making sure that what is needed for resettlement is provided,” Jones said. “The long-term is to do that work to figure out what is in the best interest of the state of North Dakota for refugee resettlement in the future.”

Global Friends Coalition in Grand Forks is a nonprofit that worked with LSS and helps integrate resettled refugees into the Grand Forks community. They offer mentoring programs, mental health services and resources for jobs and housing.

President Lisa Gibson said Global Friends is ready to work with DOH to ensure that the resettlement process runs smoothly. She hopes that a government-run program will feel effective and welcoming for new Americans.

“It is not a small endeavor to work with the agencies that play a part in resettling refugees from all over the world,” Gibson said. “It's a large project to take on, and I hope that they have the manpower, the hours and the connections to be able to do it.”

With restrictions from the Trump administration, the yearly number of admitted refugees in North Dakota plummeted. Gibson said Grand Forks went from resettling 106 people in 2016, to only one in 2020. Her hope is that this number will increase again under President Joe Biden’s administration.

“There are some really devastated areas of the planet right now where people are suffering intensely, so opening our communities to people that are fleeing horrific circumstances is our duty,” Gibson said. “I’m looking forward to being able to welcome more people and help them settle in a productive life here in Grand Forks.”

Burleigh County Commissioner Jim Peluso said a large increase of refugee resettlements in North Dakota would concern him. With the uncertainty facing local jurisdictions, he said he would like DOH to consider the individual needs of the counties involved. To date, most international refugees resettled in the state have gone to Cass, Grand Forks and Burleigh counties.

Peluso voted against accepting additional refugees in Burleigh County in 2019, but after a contentious hearing the county board agreed to accept more. 

“If they're going to settle them here and that type of thing, I would hope that the counties would be involved in the conversation,” Peluso said. “I had no problem with what Lutheran Social Services tried to do. It’s a noble thing to put displaced people somewhere. But at the same time, you got to listen to the community and see what their wants are.”

Prakash Pathak is a medical student at the University of North Dakota. When he was 15, his family left a refugee camp in Nepal and resettled in Grand Forks. Having received life-changing support from the organization, Pathak said the news about LSS-ND was devastating.

“The whole situation was really sad for the immigrant community because they played such a critical role early on when we immigrated here,” Pathak said. “I’m concerned that future immigrants that come here might not get that kind of support.”

Pathak hopes that DOH will be able to continue offering new refugees on-the-ground support that LSS provided. He said it is the small things like learning how to write a check or fill out a job application that makes a huge difference.

“I think the success of someone who comes here as a refugee is related to how much help they can get early on,” Pathak said. “I hope that the North Dakota Department of Human Services thinks about that and tries to do something similar.”

K. William Boyer is the Managing Editor of the Devils Lake News Journal. He can be reached at kboyer@gannett.com, or by phone at (701) 662-2127.  

Be sure to follow Devils Lake Journal on our twitter page, @devilslakenews, and like us on Facebook!