Xenophobia was rampant in South Africa when Patricia married a man from the Congo. When she was 9 months pregnant, her family was targeted. As her home was burning down she fled, hoping to make it to Canada. But on her way she went into labor and gave birth to her son in the El Salvador airport. After settling into a homeless shelter, the person who was supposed to be keeping her safe instead tried to steal and traffic her baby. Patricia resisted, and was tortured.  Patricia fled again, but this time with an infant on her hip. Patricia walked—more than 1,500 miles—to finally reach the US/Mexico border, where she asked to seek asylum. Patricia and her son spent months in an American detention center while their case made its way through the courts.  Thanks to the compassion of strangers, they finally found their home in Minnesota. But Patricia’s journey wasn’t over. She was haunted by the memories of the pain she had endured. When she first arrived at the Center for Victims of Torture, she was in a dark place, overcome with fear, anxiety, and shame. But the pain that broke her all those years ago is the same pain that rebuilt her strength, courage, and resilience.  After five years of therapy sessions and intensive case management at CVT’s St. Paul Healing Center she is now the happy and healthy mom she always wanted to be.

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This poetical picture story is by Mike Hazard. It is part of a project called Peace House People that will be exhibited at Franklin Library in April, 2020 funded by an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. The Alley is now featuring a regular column to ensure that we hear the voices of a community that is seldom offered space to tell their story. It came about after we engaged our local Native American community to document their work with the Wall of Forgotten Natives homeless tent encampment that sprang up two summers ago starkly highlighted homelessness in our community. We realized that we were missing the voice of those most impacted.

Stories are shared at Peace House,
the living room of Franklin Avenue.
People speak and we, the people listen.
Near the end of a meditation,
Soynavong Sivo Ravong witnessed
murders, violence, and the hell
that has been happening and will.
Then he ended, I still like tomorrow.
Born in Laos, he fought the Vietnam War.
It’s the war we must remember is
also known as the American War.
I stole a canoe to get out of Thailand.
I came to the United States in 1980.
I work with fiberglass in Lakeville.
I still like tomorrow.

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A distraught grandmother called us about her grandchildren being taken by their non-custodial mother to another state. We worked with the children’s father to help locate and recover the children, who had been told by the mother for the last two years she had been keeping them from him that he did not want them, and would not take care of them if he ever had them. The father called around Christmas time to thank us. He told us that he was exhausted after a long day, but he was taking his children to see Santa.
He said “I told them we would see Santa today, and that’s what we’re going to do. I will never give them any reason to doubt that they are the most important people in my life. Ever. I never want them to have that be a question for them again. Thank you for this chance to show them how important they are.”

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In the early 1990s a single mother with three children under eight years of age, moved to Minneapolis from a Thailand refugee camp. The mother spoke no English, had no employment skills and relied on public assistance for housing, food and medical care for her and her children. These experiences motivated her children, including Mai-Eng Lee, who purchased her first home through the City of Lakes Community Land Trust and then sold the home to her brother. Mai-Eng was encouraged to work hard in school and to strive for a life of financial independence and a commitment to community service. “My mom is an independent and strong Hmong woman. No matter the struggles my family encountered along the way, she never let anything get in her way and has always supported my siblings and I. She always reminded my siblings and me by saying, ‘we may not have the education you do, but we will do everything we can for you’.” Of the now five children, three are college graduates, one is currently in college and the youngest is currently planning for college.

When Mai-Eng (the second oldest of the five children) reflects on the experience of living in public housing with her mom and the challenges they had to face with the community she says, “We knew we didn’t want that life for our mom, ourselves, or the next generations, but there was just something we couldn’t control.” Mai-Eng believes that many of the challenges they faced arose as a result of poverty, lack of affordable housing and/or job opportunities and very few activities for children. “As a refugee kid I found myself being treated differently, but I never knew the community to be any different.” Mai-Eng chose to embrace those differences and channeled her experiences to focus on plans for her future career. The first step was graduating with a Masters in Social Work (at age 23!) with a focus on policy work. “When I came back [after college] I found that nothing had really changed and it needs to change. I wanted to come back and contribute to my community.”

It isn’t surprising that Mai-Eng’s career in policy work is both personal and professional. Growing up relying entirely on public assistance for all her family’s medical needs, she became a firm believer in quality healthcare with access to everyone. After graduate school her first job was with a local nonprofit as a MNsure navigator in assisting households to find affordable healthcare coverage and care. “One thing I’ve learned is that our healthcare is complicated and challenging and really hard for people to navigate…We are trying to set up a healthcare system that is super-easy but instead it’s super-complex.” Mai-Eng now works as a Community Health Worker for Hennepin County where her focus is on advocating for racial and health equity among young children and families. “We know there are structural racism and health inequities so we are striving to eliminate the barriers that people face when accessing preventative care such as early childhood screening. I envision our community to be inclusive and available [to our clients] so they feel they are part of the process. I want to make sure everyone has access to the opportunities and resources they need.”

In 2016, her advocacy work took a new turn; her brother, Fue Lee, decided to run for a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives. “It says so much about the life that we lived and where we’re living that influenced my brother to run for public office. These issues and the struggles, the challenges and the sacrifices are what motivated him to decide to lead a public life. Fue Lee won the DFL Primary and was elected State Representative for District 59A in the General Election.

Mai-Eng says she was Fue’s everything; door-knocker, cook, treasurer, lit-drop, and money collector. She was a part of “…a collective effort to turn out people who don’t traditionally vote or those often overlooked by political campaigns.” Their advocacy work included educating their community about how to hold a caucus, how to become delegates and how to go to the convention to be able to vote. Mai-Eng’s hope is that people will be more involved and more inclusive in the political process and that new people will want to go to the convention every year.

Now that the campaign is over, Mai-Eng says she wants to continue to focus on health equity and use her knowledge and experience to work towards making equitable healthcare policies. “Our demographics are changing and I am on the front-line with the families from ethnic minorities and new refugee communities. I have lived through the challenges as a newcomer myself and it is my hope to be a voice in closing the existing gaps in our systems.”

“My entire life story tells a narrative that is oftentimes left out from mainstream media. Even with nothing, from the beginning, our family never lost hope to rebuild a new life filled with prosperity and rich cultural diversity. My family has made significant progress within our own personal lives and in the community. Life’s challenges and despair strengthened my family’s resiliency. I don’t live my life by default is something I think everyone wants but don’t always get.”

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We work on building trust and self-confidence at ComMUSICation.  One youth would come to class nervous and would even hide from the class to avoid singing and participating.  He had no confidence in himself or his abilities and intelligence and did not trust me or the other youth to support him in class.  Through the continuous verbal support of his peers and me, he began to participate more and more. He took almost immediately to a new song that talked about issues we face in our community and world and was eager to add his voice when we rewrote lyrics.  His confidence grew as he took lead on reworking the song to be about the youth’s perspective. He would hardly sing and was not even present in our class in the beginning of the quarter and at the end he got up on stage and performed this song and others in front of peers from other classes.

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Upstream Arts was founded in 2006 by Julie and Matt Guidry, parents of a child with disabilities who witnessed the positive impact of the arts on their son Caleb. Caleb, who is non-verbal, was born with Cornelia de Lange Syndrome, which affects his physical and cognitive development. Caleb had few tools to communicate, until Matt, a professional theatre artist, exposed him to theatre and dance at a young age. Caleb began to use the physical movements, body language, and facial expressions he learned through the arts to engage with those around him; out of this experience, Upstream Arts was born. Our first program was in Caleb’s Special Education classroom in 2006. Since then, Upstream Arts has grown exponentially in response to high demand. Our programs use theatre, dance, music, visual arts and poetry to nurture the social/emotional and communication skills individuals with disabilities need in school, at home and in the community. Annually, we now work 60+ Special Education classrooms. In addition, we work with Adult Day programs, community organizations and provide professional development on accessible arts programming, serving over 3500 individuals of all ages and abilities annually.

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The Volunteer Match program connected WAMM a newcomer, Fiona Roedl, who had recently left her job and was searching for something helpful to do for some organization. WAMM needed a person to do basic data entry work for a few hours each week. This relatively straightforward relationship quickly grew more complex. Fiona learned that WAMM ideals and goals matched her own. Fiona became an active WAMM member. When staff members aren’t available, Fiona is equipped to cover the office on her own. She joins in planning and orchestrating WAMM events. Fiona handles set-up and coordinates volunteers to do bulk mailings. She prepares the necessary paperwork for fundraisers and decorates for parties. Fiona does cleanup! Without each other, WAMM and Fiona wouldn’t be as active, as impactful, or as joyful.

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Much of West Bank CDC’s regular programing for Cedar Riverside community members has been suspended through at least the end of May due to Covid-19. Typically we would invite all of our neighbors to gather Mondays at the Augsburg University Food Lab for an afternoon of cooking and sharing a meal, and also to the Thursday afternoon craft group. A weekly sewing class has also been cancelled.

The community garden, however, is up and running with an expansion of seven additional garden plots. These were quickly put to use by gardeners who are happy to have the opportunity to be active outdoors as well as grow nourishing food. It is also a chance to see neighbors and chat at a safe distance.

To address needs created by the pandemic we have been reaching out to residents of WBCDC-owned affordable housing to identify households with loss of income and urgent needs. Food support is being provided to these families. We will continue to contact households with food assistance and connections to resources. We are finding many household have not been able to access Unemployment Insurance benefits, for example, because they don’t have information about eligibility and their rights, as well as language barriers, no access to a computer, and difficulties with phone access.

WBCDC’s is goal is to create opportunities for neighbors of all languages, skin colors, gender and belief systems to socialize and make connections. We will continue to review guidelines for safe gathering and develop activities as appropriate as well as provide support households with urgent need.

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Seeha Sangwang has been part of the Youth Farm family for three years. Originally connected to us through El Rio Vista Recreation Center, Seeha has stuck around and made some pretty life-changing connections.

The  Farm Steward I worked with my first year was a chef, and he had a lot of connections with other chefs in the community, Seeha said. “He introduced me to a local chef that was hosting a pop-up and I was invited to join as a guest line cook. This was a super cool opportunity for me because my goal is to cook professionally in the future.”

“Probably the biggest thing that I’ve taken away from Youth Farm is that food brings people together,” Seeha said. “Taking this idea into my own life, I have decided that I really want to become a chef. Next year I am looking into going to St. Paul College for culinary arts. After that I’d like to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in business in order to have the tools to start my own restaurant.”

As Seeha transitions into adulthood, we hope to continue to be a support system for him, helping him build connections that will allow him to achieve his lofty goals.

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Our summer music program usually accepts middle school to high schoolers but one year an 8 year old wrote such an amazing hand written letter pleading to be accepted that none of the instructors could say no to her. Her will to learn music and guitar was relentless. She wasn’t charismatic or a star but a quiet determined little girl who knew our program would probably be her only chance to learn music and guitar – and be in a safe nurturing environment. Seeing how shy she was I realized how much it took for her to write that letter to us – she realized our program was the only opportunity she would have to learn music and guitar and be in a safe nurturing environment with other Hmong kids. We saw a shy quiet little 8 year old blossom to someone who would perform in front of 100 people and beam a smile that drew tears from her parents. Something magical happened over the course of 10 weeks.

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