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Immigrants’ way to Willmar varies

Tea Rozman Clark, of Minneapolis, who immigrated from Yugoslavia, moderates the Green Card Voices panel Thursday in the parking lot of The Goodness in downtown Willmar. (Rand Middleton | Tribune)

WILLMAR — The trio of immigrants came to Willmar in different ways, whether fleeing civil war or leaving a life without promise. They moved here to be near family, to find work, to be in a smaller city.

They have one thing in common, though. They love it in Willmar and plan to stay.

Ya Chawt, Victor Romo and Abdullahi Olow told their stories Thursday to more than 130 people who attended An Evening of Stories in downtown Willmar.

The event was a project of Vision 20/40 Willmar Lakes Area, a project working to help Willmar prepare to move into the future. One of its goals is to attract and retain newcomers to the area. For more information, go to

Tea Rozman-Clark of Minneapolis, executive director of Green Card Voices, moderated the discussion by using five open-ended questions used in recording immigrants’ oral histories. Green Card Voices uses digital storytelling to share immigrant stories in an effort to increase understanding between cultures.

Rozman-Clark went through the list of questions, asking the men to share memories of the countries where they were born, tell how they decided they would be leaving and how they came to arrive in the United States, how they managed when they first arrived, how their life is going now and what they contribute to their new communities.

Chawt said he was born in Burma and later fled a civil war along with others in the Karen culture. They were in a refugee camp for years, and it wasn’t a pleasant place.

In a refugee camp, “you are like an animal kept in a zoo,” he said.

Olow left Somalia with his family during a civil war, a 300-mile walk with only what they could carry and many dangerous moments. Before that, he said, he remembers a childhood of peace, where children could roam their neighborhood safely and neighbors looked out for each other. Romo’s story was a bit different. He grew up in Valparaiso, Chile, served in the military and got a job, but he didn’t see a future in what he was doing. He decided to go to the United States, but when his efforts to do so legally failed, he decided to walk across the border from Mexico.

For Romo, hard times were ahead, and he became emotional as he told his story. He lived on the streets in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, California, for months. He spoke no English, had no family, had $80 in his pocket and had no papers. “It’s really hard finding a job when you’ve got no papers,” he said.

Finally, he learned of a family from Chile living in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and took a bus there. They helped him, and he learned many things about living in the United States. Eventually, he moved to Mitchell, South Dakota, and then to Willmar. He’s learned English “from the street,” he said.

In recent years he has married, had a son, and become a legal resident. Now he plans to open a business.

“I don’t have to hide myself anymore,” he said. “I came here with nothing, and now I’m going to open my own store, working for myself.”

Olow said refugees from Somalia are not given a choice of country, state or town where they will settle when they leave a refugee camp. He was first sent to Houston, Texas, and moved to Willmar to live with an uncle. He said he had an advantage when he arrived, because he already spoke English, just with a British accent.

It took him several years to get his wife and son to this country. Olow now works for Heartland Community Action Agency.

They recently had another son, born at Rice Hospital in Willmar, he said. “Sometime, in the future, he could be the president of the United States,” he said with a smile.

For Chawt, the choice to come to America was a clear one, but it hasn’t always been easy. There are many differences between eastern and western culture, he said. To illustrate his point, he talked about pedestrians. In an eastern culture, “people have to wait for a car; here, cars have to wait for people,” he said, to laughter.

The main reason to come to America? “I need freedom,” he said. Refugee life is difficult, he added, and “you cannot give a better life for you children.”

His whole family is in Willmar, he said. They like Willmar, because it is a smaller city and closer to farming. “Most of the Karen people used to be farmers, so they don’t like big cities,” he said.

This country also offers more opportunity than the country of his birth, where people born poor are likely to remain poor their entire lives. In this country, he said, “the more you try, the more you can get.”

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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