Adeline Tembera, 35, and her seven children arrived in Minnesota on July 21, 2022, as refugees with the help of the International Institute of Minnesota. She's currently living with her parents in Minneapolis. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Early in his new life in Minnesota, Pascal Tembera decided to explore downtown Minneapolis using the bus system, and promptly became lost. The recent immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo was too afraid to ask for directions, so he waited outside for two hours in February’s freezing temperatures until a cousin picked him up. 

“The first few days of getting to the U.S. were very challenging. We didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know what to do,” Tembera said. “Things in Africa are pretty slow, but life here is really fast.”

The experience left the 33-year-old St. Paul nursing assistant so shaken that he took classes at the International Institute of Minnesota on how to ride Metro Transit buses. The institute facilitated Tembera’s arrival to the United States. A volunteer “bus buddy” at the agency helped Tembera figure out the bus, and is now one of his closest friends.

The institute helps refugees get on their feet during their first three months in Minnesota, and provides long-term services to clients who need it. Despite being the most comprehensive refugee resettlement agency in the state, the institute was gutted under President Donald Trump’s administration. But it’s bouncing back under President Joe Biden and a growth in local donations. It recently renovated its St. Paul offices, added six new classrooms, and tripled the size of its staff to 78—and they’re hiring more

Pascal Tembera came to Minnesota in 2018 through the International Institute of Minnesota. Since then, the agency has been helping the rest of Tembera’s family reunite. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

“The work is very intense,” said Jane Graupman, the institute’s executive director. “When people come to a new country they need a lot of support, because they’re starting completely over. And also they’ve left very harrowing situations so they need stability. The case managers are really their lifeline.”

The International Institute has been helping Tembera, his parents, and a few of his nine siblings and their families resettle in Minnesota over the last four years. Tembera’s family left their home country because they are Banyamulenge, an ethnic group that faces prosecution in the Democratic Republic of Congo. After leaving a refugee camp in Malawi, Tembera’s sister, Adeline Tembera, 35, and her seven children arrived in Minnesota on July 21, joining 73 refugees the institute has resettled so far this year.

“You need someone to help you settle in and make you feel like you belong,” said Tembera, who first learned about the International Institute of Minnesota when he met his caseworker at the airport. “That’s exactly how they made us feel.”

A look into the institute

About four clients waited in line on a Friday morning in the International Institute of Minnesota lobby. Other clients spoke to caseworkers in small office rooms behind closed doors. Some clients come in during walk-in hours to receive financial services. Others are coming back to apply for their green cards or citizenship—a high point for much of the staff.

Sculptures and paintings line the institute’s white walls; almost all of them represent clients’ home countries.

“We really wanted it to feel like it’s our clients’ space,” Graupman said. “Almost all the art we have hanging in our space are made by immigrants from all over the world—from Peru to Ukraine to many countries in Africa and Southeast Asia.”

The International Institute of Minnesota began a $13 million expansion in March 2021. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

The institute began renovating in March 2021 after kicking fundraising off for the $13-million project in 2017. The space’s square footage is now 31,000 square feet, with a new 16,000 square-foot wing. According to a spokesperson for the institute, at least 3,000 new Americans will benefit from the expansion. 

The institute also provides English classes, job training, and other classes. It has also added new training labs for hospitality students and people interested in healthcare work. The training labs include mannequins, hospital beds, and equipment. That’s where Pascal Tembera and two of his brothers completed their nursing assistant training.

Here’s how refugee resettlement works:

Credit: International Institute of Minnesota
Credit: International Institute of Minnesota

Resettlement agencies typically receive federal funding based on how many refugees they resettle in a year. Under the Trump administration, refugee resettlement in the United States decreased to a record low of 11,445 in 2021, which meant the government was also slashing financial support for agencies like the International Institute of Minnesota. 

Under former President Barack Obama’s last budget for refugee resettlement, the International Institute of Minnesota received a combined $739,500 for resettlement services and financial assistance in 2016. By the time Trump left office four years later, funding had decreased to $197,625.

Some resettlement agencies had to lay off staff, cut services, or close altogether. The institute shifted staffing and programming to focus on serving refugees who had already arrived in Minnesota in 2020. They were able to remain open through support from foundations and individual donors. But they had fewer resources to help their clients who were navigating quick-changing immigration policies, such as the travel ban on immigrants from select Muslim-majority countries.

According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, 848 refugees came to Minnesota between October of 2018 and  September of 2019—a typical fiscal year range in the refugee resettlement world. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, refugee arrivals decreased the next fiscal year to 386. In 2021, 268 refugees arrived in Minnesota. 

August 2021, however, brought a new wave of refugees to the state from Afghanistan after the Taliban took over Afghanistan. More than 1,200 Afghans have resettled in Minnesota since then. The International Institute was one of five agencies responsible for resettling the new arrivals in Minnesota. 

The institute resettled 282 refugees in fiscal year 2019, 109 in 2020, and 93 in 2021. That doesn’t include 220 Afghan refugees the agency resettled in the past year, or 92 Ukrainian refugees that have arrived since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February. 

The International Institute bounces back

The International Institute’s staff was spread thin under Trump’s administration. Caseworkers like Aziza Mama, the resettlement and matching grants manager, had to wear many hats by managing the resettlement process, employment services, and extended needs like medical or mental health services. 

“Social work isn’t easy. The needs are greater than the resources,” Aziza said. “The challenges are always there but as an organization we have been able to really deal with those challenges by having everyone’s hands-on-deck.”

A nursing instructor, Valerie Geary, teaches a class at the International Institute on July 28, 2022 in Saint Paul, MN. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

Aziza said the “outpouring of support” from the local community for recent Afghan arrivals has been used to support housing costs. The biggest barrier to resettling Afghan refugees has been finding housing. According to the agency’s annual reports, individual donations went up by nearly 7 percent from 2020 to 2021, and more than 10 percent over the last five years.

That influx made a huge difference in the lives of Afghan refugees, Aziza said. The federal government provided $1,025 in rent support for each case, which was enough to pay for a deposit and about one or two months of rent, depending on the size of the family. Through donations, the institute was able to pay for six months of rent for all of its Afghan clients. 

“This was never done before in resettlement,” Aziza said of the increased rental assistance. “We’ve always wanted to pay more rent for people because it really is a big need.”

The institute set up a refugee family fund to continue to channel donations toward housing support and other services for all refugee clients. 

‘It has changed our lives’

Adeline Tembera sat on a straw mat laid out on the front porch of her parents’ Minneapolis home on a recent Monday afternoon. She enjoyed the weather outside with her two young daughters despite the hot temperatures.

Her five other children trickled out of the front door to join the group on the porch. Her oldest son Sardou, 20, translated Swahili into English for Adeline. Her parents, Israel Tembera and Dorcas Zirirane, brought out two chairs and sat with the family.

Adeline Tembera enjoyed the weather with her family as they sat on a patio together on August 1, 2022 in Minneapolis, MN. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Sardou and Adeline planned to meet with their case worker from the International Institute the next day. Their case worker has been helping them look for work and learn English. The case worker will also help the children enrolled in school. Adeline’s son Ben, 17, said he’s excited to take music classes.

“Life is absolutely changing,” Adeline said. “I want to work hard so I can get a job and take care of my family. I also want to have some kind of education.”

Sardou said he’s seen his mother grow from stressed to calm since the family arrived in the United States. The family has received food, cash, and diapers from the International Institute. 

Pascal has also been helping his sister out since he knows English and has already gone through the adjustment period himself.

“They were my first family when I arrived here,” Pascal said of the institute staff. “After years and years of refugee life–going from one place to another and then getting here–they give you a place you can call home and set you up. It’s not just a job that they’re doing; it’s not just as simple as people might take it. It has changed our lives.”

Pascal wasn’t able to join his family on the porch that afternoon—he was working a 16-hour shift. He travels across the state and country, working as a traveling nursing assistant at various senior care facilities. 

He’s worked in Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, New York, Indiana, Kentucky, Connecticut, and Maryland. He usually drives, Pascale said, because he enjoys road trips. He added that he got his license in 2018—just after he got lost taking the bus.

Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal covering immigration and politics. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of the Year by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists. She’s a graduate...