June 22 is Refugee Sunday in the ELCA, to celebrate the ministry of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS) in its 75th anniversary year. Two weeks ago, I drove to the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St.Paul) for a wedding. Before leaving, my husband and I stopped for lunch at Hmongtown Marketplace, a large indoor/outdoor market with a food court serving traditional Hmong foods. The Hmong ethnic group is from a mountainous region of China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Most Hmong immigrants came to the U.S. as refugees in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, nearly 63,600 Hmong live in Minnesota and make up ten percent of St. Paul’s population.
Years ago, I interned at a refugee resettlement agency in Atlanta, Georgia, where I started to learn about why refugees tend to concentrate in certain metropolitan areas. Here’s one reason: The U.S. State Department sends refugees to cities where it has arranged with select agencies to provide resettlement services. Many of these agencies are partners with LIRS.
This explains why refugees arrive to certain U.S. cities. In Minnesota, though, they stay, and they encourage family members from other areas to join them. Now, Minnesota is home to the country’s largest per capita population of Hmong and Somali immigrants, many of whom first arrived as refugees.
This happens in Minnesota because behavior and policy (city and state) make refugees feel wanted, safe, supported and productive. It happens because the Twin Cities communities practice hospitality. It’s not a hospitality that pays lip service to welcome and diversity. It’s a hospitality that practices welcome through school-board decisions to teach other languages in schools, hiring practices of employers, housing policy, and networks of churches that welcome newcomers to their pews, learn about the needs of refugees and raise money to support a robust network of refugee-focused social services. Hospitality happens through years of hard work and a tolerance for working through complicated issues.
Minnesota’s commitment to refugees is exceptional. There may be no one living in your town who is or was a political refugee. Yet, in a world where millions are uprooted from their homes, your town certainly has newcomers who arrive with few resources, trauma in their past, traditions (and maybe even language) that differs from your own and a unique set of God-given gifts ready to be shared with you.
Do you know who they are? How do they experience life in your congregations, schools, and neighborhoods? On Refugee Sunday, I hope we’ll be inspired by LIRS and all who welcome refugees to do the hard work of making our communities into places where newcomers feel wanted, safe, supported and productive.
By the way, the food at Hmongtown Marketplace was delicious. We ate sausage and sticky rice (pictured), pho, stuffed chicken thighs and larb gai, all for under $20. I recommend it.
Emma Crossen is director for stewardship and development.
Photo by Ed Kazyanskaya. Used with permission.