The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Democracy and freedom, yes, but scarves and mittens too


by Evelyn Lennon
December 9, 2009

As Minnesotans, we have a long tradition of opening our arms to refugees and asylum seekers. This year, a new wave of refugees from Asia and east Africa arrived in Minnesota: Bhutanese, Karen from Burma, and small populations of Oromo from Ethiopia and Somalis.

Like the refugees who came before them, these men and women set foot in a state notorious for brutally cold winters. This group also had the misfortune of arriving in communities experiencing tremendous economic strain.

This season, with state and nonprofit budgets squeezed even tighter, we should be sure that the most vulnerable don't feel the pinch. We must ask our political leaders to stop deep cuts to non-profits.

During this period of staggering joblessness, social services help sustain families with no other options. When contemplating cuts to nonprofits, our political leaders should reflect on the men and women who are so desperate for a safe haven that they sleep on other people's living room floors.

For most, an inflatable mattress is an unaffordable luxury. What will deeper cuts mean for them and their families?

We must also ask ourselves what we can give. The answer may be as simple as a scarf or a pair of boots. Several years ago, a new client asked to have his appointments scheduled on specific days of the week. He shared a winter coat with a friend who was off work and home those days.

Every year, we refer clients to community resources for coats, sweaters, mittens and other warm clothing. If you have an extra coat in good condition in your closet, donate it to an organization.

For many new arrivals, that first coat is a lifeline. These men and women often rely on public transportation to get to the grocery store, the doctor or their children's school. In a season when temperatures dip well below freezing, it's unthinkable that anyone should have to wait at a bus stop without a coat.

For one of my clients from East Africa, receiving her first warm scarf and hat -- a small, practical gift -- is something she has not forgotten. Now she knits scarves, with donated yarn, for other clients.

There are other, less tangible, things we can do to help. We can help give asylum seekers dignity. Like us, they want jobs. They want to support themselves and their families. Between arriving in Minnesota and finding jobs, however, many need outside support. Deep cuts to nonprofits will result in fewer resources for clothing, food and shelter that help bridge gaps.

Our communities are better places when every family flourishes. As we weather bitterly cold days and nights, let's remember our new neighbors.

Sometimes the gesture is as important as the actual delivered resource. However, in Minnesota, cold weather clothing is essential.


Evelyn Lennon is a social worker at the Center for Victims of Torture. She suggests people who would like to donate clothing contact Joseph's Coat (651-291-2472) in St. Paul, and the Refugee Services effort of the Minnesota Council of Churches (612-230-3227) in Minneapolis.

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