Syria's strife gives Minnesota a chance to shine, says a former refugee

Syria's ongoing civil war has displaced an estimated 11 million people.

Syria's ongoing civil war has displaced an estimated 11 million people.

Abdullah Kiatamba knows war.

About 25 years ago, Liberia, his home, was being ripped apart by civil conflict. The then-teenager fled by himself for Sierra Leone. He spent five months in a refugee camp with 10,000 other displaced countrymen. Sleeping quarters were a makeshift tent. Going to the bathroom required a 20-minute walk. There was a three-week period when he survived on tea alone.

"It feels terrible," says Kiatamba. "There's so many layers of trauma. You've lost everything you've ever owned. You don't know where family members are. Your entire life processes stop. You don't go to school. You don't work. You can't be a breadwinner. It's a loss of self-respect that's hard for others to understand." 

Kiatamba returned to his homeland during a lull in the fighting only to be displaced twice more when it exploded again. He fled to Guinea, then Ivory Coast. On the eve of a battle in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, Kiatamba left for good by way of an immigrant visa.

Today, the 38-year-old is part of a Twin Cities Liberian community that numbers around 35,000 people. Kiatamba is the executive director of the African Immigrant Services, a nonprofit in Brooklyn Park that works on such issues as racial equity and community engagement.

Forty years ago Minnesota welcomed Hmong refugees. Citizens from war-torn nations in Africa landed decades later. Syria's ongoing civil war has resulted in more than four million refugees, the largest refugee population in the world, according to the United Nations. 

It's an untenable situation. Kiatamba believes Minnesota can be a big part of the answer.

"I think what's happening to the Syrian people provides an opportunity for Minnesota to stand up, take the lead, help these people by giving them a chance here to have new lives," he says. "The people here are generous and kind. We have shown this before and can show it again now that Minnesota is a haven for people who have had to flee their countries and want to have normal, better lives for their families."

The state took in 2,200 refugees from 24 countries last year, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. A third came from Myanmar, almost half from Somalia.

Ryan Allen, a refugee policy expert at the University of Minnesota, recently told MinnPost that “the Twin Cities are well-positioned to do its part in resettling Syrian refugees.”

Allen pointed to factors like the area's stock of affordable housing, a thriving economy, and a decent public transportation system.

Kiatamba understands why Minnesotans might be reticent about hosting an influx of Syrian refugees. Social services seem to be perpetually stretched. Moreover, locals could be leery of bringing in folks from a region rife with anti-American sentiment.   

"There's always a reason to do good things," he says. "We have people here now living normal, productive lives who were once foot soldiers in Africa. I think that fear is unfounded and is more xenophobia than anything else. 

"The longterm contributions these people would bring to our community far outweigh the short-term costs. They will be workers in our businesses. They will pay taxes. They will culturally enrich, which will improve cultural relations. I believe this is a moment where Minnesota can stand out and take the lead, and show how this wonderful place can again improve the lives of everybody."