Immigrant Outreach in Rural Minnesota

December 20, 2017

Sometimes help is needed in places you’d least expect. Contrary to common belief, the areas with the most rapidly growing number of immigrants and refugees are not in Minnesota urban settings, but rather in rural communities.

After conducting a series of focus groups in southeast Minnesota in 2016, it was determined the growing Somali community in Faribault was in need of legal support. To fill this need, the Somali Community Resettlement Services (SCRS) and Somali Adult Faribault Education (SAFE) agreed to let Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS) staff hold office hours every other Monday at their facilities.

Since July 2016, SMRLS attorneys Brian N. Lipford and John Buhta, along with paralegals Ted Hinnenkamp and Mary Vrieze, have held a rotating office schedule at SCRS and SAFE. In its first year in operation, this outreach has resulted in the opening of more than 65 cases.

To gain a greater understanding of the community needs, SMRLS staff met with SCRS Director Abdullah N. Hared and a local Somali psychologist to determine the issues affecting clients in the area. They found that the most common issue in the community involved the special needs of disabled Somali refugees.

“Most of these cases presented during the office hours involve Social Security benefits, but other cases typically include housing, immigration, public benefits, and family law,” SMRLS paralegal Mary Vrieze says.

Paralegal Ted Hinnenkamp finds that face-to-face interviews result in a better understanding of the client’s legal issues and the local community as a whole.

“The Somali refugees are a unique group of individuals. They have a lot of emotional experiences with the war and coming out of the refugee camps,” Mr. Hinnenkamp explains. 

The SCRS was established in the 1990’s to directly respond to the needs of Somali refugees and immigrants. Since SMRLS often works with immigrants and clients with limited English proficiency, it makes working at the SCRS and SAFE a perfect fit. 

“Being on site [at the SCRS and SAFE] is great because we can have such an immediate impact with our clients,” Ms. Vrieze says. “We’re just happy we’re able to help the community.”

Approaching a year and a half since beginning office hours in Faribault, all signs show this to be a successful partnership.

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