FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Some Fargo high school students left their parents not knowing if they will see them again and hid under the bed as gunshots rang through their villages. They traveled thousands of miles to escape violence but thought instead they'd freeze to death.
These refugees, all in Leah Juelke's English-language learners class at Fargo South High School, sharpened their skills by writing short stories about their journeys to the United States, and are part of the reason why North Dakota's largest city leads the nation in refugee resettlement per capita.
The students say they hope their stories, published last month with a school district grant and excerpted throughout this story, fosters better understanding at a time when new arrivals to the U.S. — especially those from Syria — are under scrutiny from presidential candidates, state leaders and Americans throughout the country.
Sophomore Nakafu Kahasha came in 2010 from Tanzania. She had moved there from Congo, where soldiers from Rwanda who were involved in the war would knock on doors, say they were family and then shoot whoever opened the door. "I get along with (my new classmates) really good because they really like me," the outgoing 16-year-old told The Associated Press, but said it wasn't easy to put her experiences on paper.
"I was not ready to tell my story ... I don't like to think about my past," she said. "But looking back, it was a good thing."
I couldn't believe I was watching a movie in a theater, in the U.S. I was excited for this new life but I was also sad because I missed my friends at home. As I sat in the theater, I kept thinking about what my friends in the refugee camp were doing at that moment. I wondered If I would ever see them again. — Santhosh Ghale, who was born in Nepal.
North Dakota, though sparsely populated, has an active refugee program thanks to Lutheran Social Services, which has resettled an average of 390 refugees per year in the last two decades, including 506 last year.
Fargo was 97 percent white in 1990, but its ethnic population has grown rapidly: 7 percent in 2000 and 10 percent in 2010. Most of the refugee students in the city attend South High, and those in Jeulke's class are from Nepal, Bhutan, Colombia, Rwanda, Congo, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania and Vietnam.
Not everyone in Fargo sees the increase in refugees positively. One man started an online petition calling for a halt to bringing in more refugees, and another man wrote to the local newspaper demanding a 20-year moratorium on the LSS refugee program, mostly because of the expense to taxpayers and additional costs incurred by school districts.
Lutheran Social Services CEO Jessica Thomasson said the writing project would help critics of the resettlement program understand and "see this particular issue in terms of the people who are involved in it more than the just an abstract issue."
Anju Gurung and Anju Tamang, who came from separate refugee camps in Nepal in 2011, told the AP they're disappointed about the recent political climate and hope the state continues its aggressive resettlement program.
"You should be able to come in," Tamang said. "There is an opportunity to learn new things, like a language. I feel you can do whatever you want with your future."
Sometimes people don't treat refugees with kindness, or people would neglect us, show fake love, or betray us. I have experienced all those problems as a refugee, but I still keep trying to see the good in people. — Bebek Rai, who was born in a refugee camp in Nepal.
Fargo South assistant principal Cory Lehman said there was a time not so long ago when the school's commons and lunchroom was clearly segregated between those who grew up here and immigrant students. He said that is no longer the case.
"You go into our commons and it's a nice place to be now," Lehman said. "It's a nice mix. Kids feel comfortable."
Said Juelke, "There are still cliques, because it is high school, but it is so nice to see everybody talking to everybody."
One of the challenges was not knowing the language. It was difficult for me to get used to speaking English, but now I can. It was not easy, but I pushed myself because there is nothing you can do in this country if you don't speak English. — Charlotte Nyirabafuruma, who came from Rwanda in 2012.
Other teachers have read the refugees' stories out loud — stories that describe leaving parents behind, experiencing airplanes and cars, being fascinated by indoor plumbing and mystified by the stove and microwave.
Through the mere act of writing, Juelke said, she has seen "huge growth" and confidence from the students.
While all students share many of the same struggles, Lehman said, the refugees' stories help other students respect cultural differences and, in some cases, understand what it's like to be homeless.
"This gives us a view of their glimpse and background and where they want to go now," Lehman said. "What they want is what we want."
The collection of refugees' stories, "Journey To America: Narrative Short Stories," can be found at ellfargosouth.weebly.com.