In search of a center; Refugee activists make their case at legislative update meeting

Published 10:51 am Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Immigrant families have it a lot tougher than people think, according to John Brown Bol.

Chief Brown Bol

Chief Brown Bol

Language barriers prevented some immigrant families from accessing the city’s goods and services, from getting a driver’s license to even going shopping. One elderly man Bol knew hadn’t been outside of his home for six months.

“He said, ‘What’s there for me outside? I don’t know English,’” Bol said.

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That was only part of the concern Bol had for immigrant and refugee families Tuesday during a legislative update put on by the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage, formerly the Council on Black Minnesotans.

Bol and other leaders within Austin’s immigrant communities have worked over the past few months to bring a refugee community center to Austin. Bol told the audience the groups have started English classes at area churches attended by Sudanese tribes each Wednesday and Sunday, but the group is trying to reach out to all refugees within the city.

“We belong here, we are the citizens of Mower County,” Bol said. “We’re just trying to make sure that we are equal and everything is understandable here in Mower County.”

To that end, Bol and others have tried to work with the city of Austin in recent months to find a space for refugees to gather, whether it be an existing building or an empty site people can use.

Katie Topinka, legislative director with the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency talks Tuesday during a legistlative update meeting at the Austin Public Library. -- Eric Johnson/

Katie Topinka, legislative director with the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency talks Tuesday during a legistlative update meeting at the Austin Public Library. — Eric Johnson/

State Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, said he looked into securing state bonding money for such a project last year, but found a state-funded refugee center would have to be owned by some sort of government entity.

In other words, if local activists want to receive state funding for a community center, the city of Austin would have to make a request for them.

More communication is needed between activists and the city, according to Bol. Though some of the activists have been slow to come together, misunderstandings between the groups have already cropped up.

Austin Mayor Tom Stiehm told the audience he believed part of the problem lied with the southern Sudanese’s tribal factions and their unwillingness to work together. Though Stiehm believed fallout from South Sudan’s civil war had trickled into area Sudanese tribes, Bol said after the meeting the African conflict hadn’t pitted one tribe against another here in the U.S.

“You don’t really see that here,” he said.

Austin City Administrator Craig Clark said the city is willing to work with refugee and immigrant leaders on submitting a proposal, provided they can organize. It’s been a challenge for the refugee community to figure out how to make a proposal to the city, but Clark said city staff is willing to explain the necessary steps to submitting their requests.

“We’re interested in sitting down and working with anybody in the community, especially people who are refugees and are immigrants,” he said. “We’re willing to help anyway we can as far as understanding the process.”

Area leaders believed hearing from Bol was a good reminder of what immigrant families and families of color face every day.

“It’s good just to make sure we stay engaged,” Sparks said.

Housing difficulties

One of the biggest issues facing immigrant and other families is a lack of support when it comes to housing.

Bol told Katie Topinka, a legislative director with the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, how area families had difficulty buying homes because they had come to the U.S. with no credit history, and therefore no financial record of not when it came to securing house loans.

“The majority of us have been turned down by banks,” he said.

Topinga attended the meeting to hear resident concerns and to share information on how the agency’s various programs were funded by the 2015 Minnesota Legislature. Aside from funding to programs designed to reach out to immigrant families, the housing finance agency also saw lawmakers create a $4 million workforce housing initiative to fund new developments around the state.

Sparks authored the bill for that program earlier this year as the head of the state’s jobs, agriculture and rural development committee.

Though the state housing finance agency doesn’t deal directly with residents, they often connect residents with private or nonprofit lending and housing programs such as Three Rivers Community Action, the group that is also working with the city of Austin on a new 38-home townhouse development in northwest Austin.

Three Rivers is one of several programs that could help immigrant or low-income families with little to no credit secure housing loans, according to Topinka.

The agency is looking for more information on community housing issues as lawmakers prepare for the 2016 session.

“We’re really looking forward at what we should really be doing moving forward to help new immigrant families,” Topinka said.