When the Minnesota Council of Churches was deciding where to build its first outstate office for refugee assistance, Mankato stood out.
That wasn’t because refugees were coming here directly from their home countries. Mankato isn’t designated by the federal government as a first stop for refugees.
But refugees who landed in other American cities were making their way to Mankato and bringing relatives, said Rachele King, director of refugee services for the nonprofit.
She heard good things about Mankato, both as a place to live and one that helps refugees.
The Mankato office opened April 1, but is taking time to figure out what other nonprofits and governments are doing here to avoid competing with them. To that effect, the nonprofit is convening a group of service providers and refugees to talk about what is and isn’t being done.
The office is led by Jessica O’Brien, who previously coordinated the refugee employment program for MRCI, which had a contract with Blue Earth County. O’Brien expects to continue that work in her new job through a contract with MRCI. The Mankato office is temporarily housed in MRCI offices, and is looking for a permanent location.
Other priorities for the Mankato office include helping refugees get more involved in their communities.
“They would like opportunities to give back and be more engaged,” O’Brien said.
Likewise, Mankatoans want to learn more about the refugees, and the nonprofit wants to help, she said.
The Minnesota Council of Church is comprised of 24 Protestant denominations, and refugee assistance has been a large part of their work since 1984.
The Mankato office has time to plan thanks to a $130,000 grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation.
Overall, the goal for refugees is integration and self-sufficiency. And the two biggest priorities for the nonprofit are jobs and housing.
Florence Okot, a Sudanese woman who came to Texas in September of 1998, said jobs are the biggest problem.
“Almost all of the men are working out of Mankato,” largely in factories, she said. Okot avoided that pitfall by getting training in nursing. She previously worked for nursing homes and expects to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from Minnesota State University next spring.
Despite the job struggles, Okot said her fellow refugees don’t want to leave.
“Everybody likes Mankato. Even if they find a job 30 minutes away they don’t want to leave Mankato.”