International Institute of Minnesota executive director Jane Graupman feels as though she is carrying on a legacy that is unquestionably and in some ways uniquely part of state history. Now, as the organization begins resettling refugees of the war in Afghanistan, that sense of responsibility is only heightened, she said.
 
“We expected around 300 arrivals (in Minnesota) initially,” Graupman said, “but we now expect to resettle considerably more as the total number of Afghans coming to the U.S. has increased. We aren’t sure what the final number will be at this point.” What is certain is that all of them will arrive within the next six months.
 
International Institute
International Institute executive director Jane Graupman and refugee services specialist Hamdi Maalin organize donations they will distribute to Afghan refugees who settle in Minnesota. Photo by Brad Stauffer

 

A resident of the Summit-University neighborhood, Graupman has been with the International Institute for 31 years. As of last week, she said, the institute had resettled two Afghan families, one in Saint Paul and the other in a suburb. One is a family of nine and the other a family of five. The institute had only 24 hours’ notice of their arrival, and for their resettlement Graupman gives credit to her staff for their preparedness and commitment.

Located at 2300 Myrtle Ave. while its longtime headquarters at 1694 Como Ave. is being renovated, the International Institute is part of the nonprofit U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. USCRI works with the State Department to help determine the number of refugees coming to the U.S. in a given year. The resettlement program is designed as a reunification program with refugees being placed where they have family, according to Graupman.

“The Afghan community here is being very proactive,” Graupman said. “They’re asking what they can do to help. One community leader who has only been here six years very much wants to help. He has five brothers and doesn’t know where they are. He’s here and safe but he can’t sleep, not knowing where his family is.”

The Afghan refugees are arriving with a special immigrant visa given to those who have helped the United States abroad, Graupman said. The refugees are first taken to a secure country where they are processed at U.S. military bases. The military does security and background checks and administers vaccinations before enlisting the aid of such organizations as USCRI.

The International Institute of Minnesota will be working closely with the national office as the State Department determines where the 100,000 refugees will be going, Graupman said. Some states have a much larger Afghan population than Minnesota, “but the Afghan community here is being very proactive,” she said. “They’re asking what they can do to help. One community leader who has only been here six years very much wants to help. He has five brothers and doesn’t know where they are. He’s here and safe but he can’t sleep, not knowing where his family is.”

Support services provided to new refugees

When refugees arrive in Minnesota, they are provided furnished rental housing that the institute secures. “Everyone has to have a new mattress and cribs for young children,” Graupman said. “We make sure there’s clothing and food. We provide ethnically appropriate meals. We’re fortunate to have an Afghani restaurant in Saint Paul.” Khyber Pass at 1571 Grand Ave. has donated meals, and the institute has paid for others, Graupman said.

Refugees receive other support services, including health screenings and enrollment in local schools. “Most of the schools have English as a Second Language services or interpreters,” Graupman said. “Parents may also be enrolled in ESL classes, but they don’t have a long time to study or go to college. People have to go to work. We help them get a first job and work toward getting a job they want more long-term.”

“It’s a big undertaking to come to a new country that’s completely different,” Graupman said. “English is not an easy language to learn, and the older you are the harder it is.”
It is also difficult for refugees to leave behind the career they had in their former country, according to Graupman. “One of the two Afghan gentlemen we resettled is a doctor,” she said. “He was working with the U.S. government to improve public health in Afghanistan.”

It is also difficult for refugees to leave behind the career they had in their former country, according to Graupman. “One of the two Afghan gentlemen we resettled is a doctor,” she said. “He was working with the U.S. government to improve public health in Afghanistan.”

Families suffer from other resettlement issues. “Just think about what gives your life meaning,” Graupman said. “It’s your home, what feels safe to you, what feels familiar. It’s the routine you have. There’s a lot of grieving by refugees, but theirs is a testimony to human resiliency.”

“That’s one of the things about working with new Americans. With everything they’ve been through, they still have this generosity that’s just remarkable. There’s this graciousness; you just wonder where it comes from.”

Witnessing their perseverance as well as their generosity is part of what makes Graupman’s job so rewarding, she said. “That’s one of the things about working with new Americans,” she said. “With everything they’ve been through, they still have this generosity that’s just remarkable. There’s this graciousness; you just wonder where it comes from.”

The International Institute of Minnesota has resettled more than 25,000 refugees since its founding in 1919, according to Graupman. Many arrive after long stays in refugee camps, and they have experienced extensive trauma. She expects the needs of the Afghan refugees to be similar to the needs of the Southeast Asian and Somali refugees of previous wars. The difference is the Afghans are arriving over the course of just six months.

The International Institute was founded as a branch of the Saint Paul YWCA to meet the needs of immigrant women and their families, according to Graupman. It became an independent agency in 1938. During World War II, in partnership with the War Relocation Authority, it helped get Japanese-Americans out of internment camps to work as translators and code breakers at Fort Snelling. Institute caseworkers helped the Japanese-Americans find other jobs and new homes.

“I went back and read a lot of the institute’s history,” Graupman said. “There were a lot of women from a lot of different backgrounds who were ahead of their time. They included in the institute’s bylaws that half of our members should be new Americans,” and that remains the institute’s goal today.

“Today everybody is talking about diversity,” Graupman said, “but they were thinking about that 100 years ago. When I read the notes of the founders, I feel so fortunate to walk in their shoes, to carry on the work that they did.”

— Anne Murphy

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