For many years, I was unaware of the resettlement efforts in Fargo. Because I lacked this larger context, the random sightings of a non-white face never failed to surprise me. During my first year of graduate school, I returned home for Christmas and saw a black man parking his car at the mall. Unlike the occasional foreign-exchange student or visitor passing through town, he was the first black person I had ever seen who seemed to live in Fargo, which I gathered from his North Dakota license plate. As he entered the mall, he said, “excuse me” to someone who brushed past and I noticed his thick accent, which sounded “foreign,” for lack of better terms. “Where are you from?” I wanted to ask, but I held back, aware that I’d been asked the same question so many times in the past, sometimes in ways that exacerbated the feeling that I didn’t belong.
These days, Fargo bears little resemblance to the big small town I left behind. The population has doubled, fueled by an economy that remained robust even during the worst years of the recession. The widespread availability of jobs has helped stem the tide of people leaving the state, as well as retain many of the refugees resettled in its major cities. According to Tim Mahoney, the mayor of Fargo, the local business community has played an important role in supporting ongoing resettlement efforts. “We were a state that was losing population,” he told me. “Kids would graduate and move as fast as they could to the big city. Employers realized they need[ed] people to work… Our unemployment rate is 2.2 percent, so we have about five or six thousand jobs available for people right now.”
Despite some early tensions and concerns that the influx of refugees would strain local resources and social services, many city residents began to see refugees in a more relatable light. “We all want similar things,” Mahoney said. “We want to have a job, we want to be able to take care of our children, to have good schools… You’ve got to understand. Truly, in the community what's happened is that people are embracing [resettlement]. They really do like the fact that we’re growing.”
Because the demographics of the city began to change soon after I moved away, the effect of returning is always surreal, akin to walking through a door to an alternate reality that I wish to be true, but still find hard to believe. I am no longer the only “other” when I fly into the airport or shop at the supermarket. I can walk downtown or through the park and simply blend in, my presence no more reason to stare than the next person’s. There’s a mosque now, as well as a Buddhist temple. And across the Red River in Moorhead, there’s an immigrant center that helps newcomers learn how to become small-business owners and entrepreneurs.
Perhaps what surprises me most is the fact that North Dakota currently leads the nation in refugee resettlement per capita, and shows no signs of slowing. Of the 400 to 500 refugees who arrive annually in the state, approximately 70 percent settle in Fargo, with the rest going to Grand Forks and Bismarck. While refugees are still not allowed to choose where they live, some express a preference for the area to reunite with relatives, and to the degree possible, the State Department tries to honor such requests. Last year, according to information provided by Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota (LSS), 90 percent of the refugees resettled in North Dakota joined family members who were already living there.