Gregg Aamot

The Twin Cities-based writer talks about his book, The New Minnesotans: Stories of Immigrants and Refugees

In 2005, the number of immigrants and refugees in Minnesota was surpassed only by that of California. Why are so many people coming to our state?

There’s an extensive network of support here—institutions that grew up out of the state’s generosity and religious background. The state’s character seems to be welcoming.

Who are these newcomers?

Mostly Hmong, Somali, Ethiopians, and Latin Americans, along with smaller groups from places like Burma, Togo, Iraq, and Liberia. The people are mostly refugees, as opposed to the immigrants who settled here 100 years ago. They have been pushed out of their homes, mostly for political reasons, and often want to return. They may worry about their children becoming involved in the culture here.

How does the American culture affect the immigrant/refugee experience?

People are more in limbo; they stay very connected to their homelands through cell phones, e-mail, and blogs. Also, the first wave, which peaked around 1880, was very culturally compatible—almost all white, Christian, and European. They chose to come and were here to stay.

What is the state doing to help?

The police have tried to get members of these communities on their force, often in a communications or liaison capacity. School districts are focusing on ESL and celebrating different cultures. As time goes on, the refugees are starting to help themselves through ethnic, fraternal, and other groups.

What might an individual do?

There’s a dearth of knowledge and understanding about who these folks are and why they’re here. It’s important to get to know your neighbors. Attend a speech at an area university or try new foods at a festival. Try to imagine what could compel someone to leave their homeland.

How do immigrants and refugees contribute to life in Minnesota?

There are so many Hmong businesses now in St. Paul, and Hispanic and Latino business along Lake Street in Minneapolis. In rural areas, most have worked for meat processors and were transient at first, but now they’ve decided they’re here to stay and are taking a stake in communities. They are reviving the old downtown areas in places like Worthington, Marshall, and Willmar, with restaurants, grocery and clothing stores. There’s some tension, but many of the longtime residents have welcomed what these folks have brought to town. Willmar won the state high school boys cross-country championship last year with four Somali boys leading the team.

You write that more Hmong in their twenties and thirties own their own homes than any other racial group in St. Paul, including whites. Why have they been so successful here?

The Hmong have loyal, close-knit families and help each other out through clan networks.

According to your book, several thousand Hmong are living in polygamous families here. Talk about a culture clash!

Polygamy is still normal in Laos. It goes back to the patriarchal clan-based structure that can be admirable in a lot of ways. The younger people realize this is illegal and not a way to organize families here. Officials have sort of tolerated it with the understanding that it would go away.