WILLISTON, N.D.—Dassyn Bakaruga heard people were making "crazy money" here. So in early July, he hopped on a bus in Louisville, Kentucky, and got off 18 hours later in Williston. He arrived with $13 in his wallet and a change of clothes in his backpack.

He arrived Williston in early July. By then, jobs were slowly drying up in this oil boomtown. Not knowing where to go, Dassyn walked 2.5 miles to the local Walmart and spent the night in the home-improvement department. He curled up under a pile of pallets and fell asleep.

Since then, he's been sleeping in cars and motel stairways. The 27-year-old is a refugee from eastern Congo, where tribal warfare has killed millions of people in the past few decades. He moved to the United States 14 years ago, graduated high school, and worked a series of restaurant jobs.

He's never made more than $10 an hour. When his friend said that the Walmart in Williston was paying $17, he headed out of town. His girlfriend was three months pregnant at the time and he needed a steady job support his son.

"I'm all in right now," says Dassyn, after getting a free lunch at the Salvation Army in downtown Williston. "I don't have much of a choice at this point."

(Read "Black Gold Boom and Bust" for more on Williston's oil frenzy.)

Creating community

Dassyn is among a growing number of African immigrants moving to northwestern North Dakota for work. Though Census numbers often miss homeless people, data shows that the number of Africans living in the state grew 82 percent between 2009 and 2013. North Dakota is still overwhelmingly white, so dark-skinned people like Dassyn feel like they stand out. He says he doesn't feel welcome in Williston, but that it's not much different from other parts of the country. He says he has noticed "people looking at me badly" when he walks into stores.

Other Africans in Williston help him feel supported—people from countries like Ghana, Somalia, and Mauritania. Dassyn recently befriended a group of brothers from the Congo who are also looking for work. They invited him to sleep in their car with them. They shower about three times a week, when a friend of a friend allows them to use his bathroom if his roommate is away.

The four Congolese friends show up every day around noon at the Salvation Army to get a free meal, usually the only one they have that day. After eating a ham and cheese sandwich, they go upstairs to apply for jobs using computers. On a recent Wednesday, they were filling out applications for jobs at Menards, a sprawling home-improvement store opening outside of town.

"They are going to have a grand opening soon, so I am banking on that," says Dassyn. Two of the brothers recently found $16-an-hour construction jobs.

(Read "Where $15 An Hour Is Sometimes Only $12" for more on living wages.)

So far, Dassyn has found only a few gigs on Craigslist helping people move furniture. It definitely won't be enough to pay the sky-high rents in Williston. The average one-bedroom apartment costs $2,000 a month. He has managed to find a bright side. "There is not much to do here. There aren't a lot of nightclubs or malls," he says. "You don't really have a chance to waste your money." He still has money left over from the $50 he made last week.

"I still feel the air of opportunity. I feel like something is going to give."—Dassyn Bakaruga

It's already been a month since he arrived, but Dassyn is not giving up yet on finding a $17-an-hour job. He has no plans to get on a bus back to Kentucky, even though the Salvation Army helps people pay for bus tickets to go home.

"I still feel the air of opportunity," he says. "I feel like something is going to give."

Maybe soon he'll afford to sleep in a place of his own, in a real bed.

Creating community

Dassyn is among a growing number of African immigrants moving to northwestern North Dakota for work. Though Census numbers often miss homeless people, data shows that the number of Africans living in the state grew 82 percent between 2009 and 2013. North Dakota is still overwhelmingly white, so dark-skinned people like Dassyn feel like they stand out. He says he doesn't feel welcome in Williston, but that it's not much different from other parts of the country. He says he has noticed "people looking at me badly" when he walks into stores.

Other Africans in Williston help him feel supported—people from countries like Ghana, Somalia, and Mauritania. Dassyn recently befriended a group of brothers from the Congo who are also looking for work. They invited him to sleep in their car with them. They shower about three times a week, when a friend of a friend allows them to use his bathroom if his roommate is away.

The four Congolese friends show up every day around noon at the Salvation Army to get a free meal, usually the only one they have that day. After eating a ham and cheese sandwich, they go upstairs to apply for jobs using computers. On a recent Wednesday, they were filling out applications for jobs at Menards, a sprawling home-improvement store opening outside of town.

"They are going to have a grand opening soon, so I am banking on that," says Dassyn. Two of the brothers recently found $16-an-hour construction jobs.

(Read "Where $15 An Hour Is Sometimes Only $12" for more on living wages.)

So far, Dassyn has found only a few gigs on Craigslist helping people move furniture. It definitely won't be enough to pay the sky-high rents in Williston. The average one-bedroom apartment costs $2,000 a month. He has managed to find a bright side. "There is not much to do here. There aren't a lot of nightclubs or malls," he says. "You don't really have a chance to waste your money." He still has money left over from the $50 he made last week.

"I still feel the air of opportunity. I feel like something is going to give."—Dassyn Bakaruga

It's already been a month since he arrived, but Dassyn is not giving up yet on finding a $17-an-hour job. He has no plans to get on a bus back to Kentucky, even though the Salvation Army helps people pay for bus tickets to go home.

"I still feel the air of opportunity," he says. "I feel like something is going to give."

Maybe soon he'll afford to sleep in a place of his own, in a real bed.

This article is part of our Next America: Communities project, which is supported by a grant from Emerson Collective.

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