International Institute of Minnesota provides hope for immigrants and refugees

New Americans

In today’s political climate, immigration is a very controversial issue. Unstable governments, civil wars, and human rights abuses are causing immigrants and refugees to flock to the United States in search of a better life. The U.S. has been historically seen as a safe haven for people to come to in order to build a new life and climb up the social ladder. That is, and has always been, the American dream. In recent years, however, many Americans have become hostile towards new arrivals to the United States. Skeptics think that welcoming many more immigrants will limit job options for native-born citizens, cause economic collapse, and drastically increase the crime rate. However, all it takes is a little perspective to see that immigrants and refugees need all the help they can get. 

“Some refugees have been living in refugee camps for up to twenty years. That’s the average for a refugee,” says Michael Donahue. “Those [refugee camps] are very, very poor and dangerous places to live.”

Donahue is the Associate Director and Director of Career Pathways at the International Institute of Minnesota, an organization in St. Paul whose mission is, according to their website, “helping New Americans (refugees, people who have political asylum, people who are permanent residents, and new citizens) achieve self-sufficiency and full membership in American life.”

History of the Institute

The Institute was founded 100 years ago on Dec. 12, 1919. It was originally part of the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) of St. Paul.

“1919 was just after the end of World War I, and a lot of Eastern European immigrants were coming to the United States,” Donahue says, “And there weren’t a lot of services for the women who were coming. So that was the original outreach of the International Institute.”

The Institute originally served immigrant women, supporting them and also teaching English classes and citizenship classes. In fact, the Institute was the first organization in Minnesota to teach ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. In 1938, the Institute become independent from the YWCA. 

“Then the next major step in our history was after the Vietnam war, and a lot of Southeast Asian immigrants came to the United States. That would include people from Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos, and the largest group of them all were Hmong,” says Donahue. “And so we became the largest resettlement agency for the Hmong people in Minnesota, and we provided lots of services and helped them to settle into the United States, and that started in 1975. Since then, we have resettled more than 25,000 refugees.”

Services offered

In 1990 the Institute started job training programs to help New Americans on their career paths. 

“If [a New American’s] English is good enough, then they can enroll in our job training programs. [They] start as nursing assistants in nursing homes,” says Donahue, “And after they’ve done that for a while we help them to enroll in college, and become nurses, and we have a class that our students can attend before they go to college, just to teach them what it’s going to be like.”

The Institute also offers classes for things that native-born Americans might think are commonplace, but immigrants aren’t used to.

“If they have children, we make sure that the children are enrolled in school,” Donahue says. “We do some early lessons on how to ride a bus, and how to go shopping, that’s a very new thing for a lot of people, and any other needs they have.”

The Institute has also been doing an annual event, called the Festival of Nations, since 1932. The purpose of the Festival is to teach both native-born Americans and New Americans about other cultures.

“It’s held in the springtime every year, and that’s a way we highlight the culture and the food and the music of different ethnic groups who are living in Minnesota,” Donahue says.

How can you help out?

SPA ninth-grader Ivy Raya has had a role in the organization since she was a young child. Her mother, Jane Graupman, is the Executive Director of the Institute. 

“I’d always come with my mom when she had big events, or was just staying late. And I’d come with her after school and just stay to help out,” says Raya. “I’d always like to make the decorations, or talk to the students.”

Raya encourages SPA students to help out the New Americans who arrive at the Institute, especially during the winter.

“Just donate clothes, like a bunch of winter clothes,” says Raya. “Some of the people who come here are very new to winter.” 

I am humbled to work with the New Americans who come here. They’re amazing people, and they all have stories to tell. Some of those stories are very painful. And they’re all willing to share those stories with us.”

Donahue expressed similar sentiments. “We want to make sure that people have enough warm clothing in the winter, that they have heavy blankets to keep themselves warm. One of the things that continues to amaze me is that I think this building is kind of warm, and I don’t feel the need to wear a coat here, and some of our refugees have never lived in an environment where it’s less than 75 degrees, and when it gets to 60 degrees they’re shaking,” he says. “We want to make sure they’re comfortable until they acclimate themselves to the Minnesota winter.”

Donahue also shared a few other ideas for SPA students on how to help the Institute.

“We’ve started a new treatment recently for people who are traumatized. You create these heavy blankets, and they’re filled with these little pellets of polyester. That has proven to be very effective for our clients and their kids. So we have groups of people get together to ten or twenty of these weighted blankets.” he says. “And people are always welcome to volunteer at as the Festival of Nations.” 

Many Reasons Why

Donahue has worked at the Institute for 20 years, and Raya has helped out at the Institute for most of her life. They believe in its mission, and they think you should, too.

“I am humbled to work with the New Americans who come here. They’re amazing people, and they all have stories to tell. Some of those stories are very painful. And they’re all willing to share those stories with us.” Donahue says. “It helps us to realize what struggles they’ve had to go through in order to get here, and I see every day how much they want to become a part of American society and make their own contributions.”