Across the country, grassroots organizations have faced an uphill battle to secure enough money to adequately support their growing immigrant populations.
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When COVID-19 reached North Dakota in March 2020, Matuor Alier started thinking about how he could help. Even before the virus began sickening thousands across the state, Alier saw members of his fellow immigrant community—a growing population that he refers to as “New Americans”—struggling to buy groceries or pay rent as they lost their jobs in the factories and food processing plants of Fargo, a city on the state’s eastern border with Minnesota. And through late 2020 and into 2021, when testing and then vaccination became widely available, he watched as misinformation tore through the population even more quickly than the virus had.
Alier, a 32-year-old public school administrator who came to North Dakota in 2008 as a refugee from what is now South Sudan, realized he could pivot his nonprofit organization, the ESHARA Project, to meet the needs of New Americans that he felt were being ignored by the state. Alier and three partners founded ESHARA—which stands for Ethnic Self Help Alliance for Refugee Assistance and brings together seven community-based nonprofit organizations in the Fargo area—in 2016 as an employment assistance program for New Americans. Throughout June and July 2020, ESHARA coalition members helped nearly 300 people with rental assistance, grocery delivery services, and help getting tested for COVID-19 or filing for unemployment benefits.
Now, nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit communities of color and the working class particularly hard, some of Alier’s optimism has turned to frustration. He and other ESHARA Project members are now struggling to help the most vulnerable groups in and around Fargo as financial support has decreased and the seemingly endless march of the pandemic has taken its toll on organizers. Nationwide, grassroots nonprofits that serve essential roles in their communities face similar barriers to getting the recognition and funding they need to make an impact. It’s indicative of a larger problem of disinvestment in immigrant and BIPOC communities—the same communities that are disproportionately affected by the pandemic and its economic fallout.
Early on in the pandemic, state and local governments seeking to slow the spread of COVID-19 realized that they would need to reach these vulnerable populations, but many—particularly in overwhelmingly white states like North Dakota—lacked the public trust required to work in these communities. Instead, many outsourced the work to nonprofits like the ESHARA Project, but the financial support often came with strict requirements that strained community groups’ limited staff. For instance, care coordinators working for the ESHARA Project, who work within communities to offer translation services and help getting vaccinated, often going door to door, haven’t been paid since June, said Hukun Dabar, executive director of the Afro-American Development Association of Fargo-Moorhead, a member of the ESHARA Project. That’s when the North Dakota Department of Health routed the ESHARA Project’s funding through another nonprofit, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, rather than through the city of Fargo, which had been paying ESHARA coalition members directly.
The state’s goal was to expand its assistance for immigrants statewide, rather than limiting it to Fargo — but since the switch, ESHARA has been overburdened with paperwork, Dabar said, and the state hasn’t released funds to pay care coordinators the organization hired to work directly within immigrant communities. He estimates they’re owed more than $100,000 in back pay, though Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service estimates that the funds should come in by the end of November. The state also isn’t providing funding for rental assistance or food delivery, forcing the ESHARA Project to suspend those services or crowdfund to help families that are struggling. Meanwhile, even the funding promised by the state is only enough to pay about one care coordinator for every 3,000-4,000 people who need help, Dabar added.
What’s more, the state has hired administrators to oversee the project who don’t come from the affected communities, Dabar said, and shifting personnel in North Dakota’s Health Department has made conversations about the project’s needs difficult. He and others working in the ESHARA Project believe that the state has shown deliberate disregard for immigrant communities as the pandemic drags on.
“They’re funding other groups but not our group,” said Hamida Dakane, a care coordinator with the ESAHARA Project. “I’m here to provide for my community, but when you hire someone else who has never lived with these people, who never spoke this language, who cannot walk into grocery [stores] and talk to people the way we can do—what will you call that other than oppression?”
This sentiment isn’t unique to North Dakota. Grassroots organizations are doing similar work in Kansas City, Portland, Oregon and Lincoln, Nebraska, often connecting immigrant groups to services that they wouldn’t otherwise receive from state governments or mainstream nonprofits that aren’t targeted toward them. But a report by the Urban Institute found that, nationwide, immigrant-focused community organizations have faced a lack of funding even as the needs of people they serve grow.
Part of the problem is a disconnect between the smaller, community-based organizations that need funding the most and the larger, more established nonprofits that can potentially provide it, said Brad Fulton, a sociologist who studies community-based organizations at Indiana University. Though foundations and individual philanthropists saw their wealth increase during the pandemic, and while the federal government offered assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program, grassroots groups may have more difficulty accessing aid due to institutional barriers and staffing shortages.
“It was a first-time effort for a lot of these organizations,” Fulton said. “So they didn’t have the networks and the ties to know how to efficiently access that money. The smaller, lower resource organizations who really needed the resources weren’t equipped to access those resources.”
Meanwhile, the work that the ESHARA project and other grassroots community organizations do for immigrant communities is all the more essential because of the unique challenges New Americans face, particularly through the pandemic. Immigrant groups are among some of the most hesitant to get vaccinated due to a deluge of misinformation from their home countries and mistrust in governments. Nationwide, concerns about legal status can compound these difficulties, and immigrant groups anecdotally experience lower vaccination rates than Americans born in the U.S.
In North Dakota, these barriers have had tangible impacts. According to the latest data from the COVID Tracking Project, Black North Dakotans had the highest rate of COVID-19 cases relative to their population in the state, followed by Asians and Native Americans. While the state does not release racial data for deaths from COVID-19, the infection rate is over 13,000 per 100,000 for Black people, compared to about 8,500 for people identifying as white. In North Dakota, the Black community is composed mainly of New Americans from countries like Somalia, Sudan, Liberia, Eritrea, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Foreign-born North Dakotans, who come to the state seeking economic opportunity or political asylum, made up 4.7 percent of the state’s population in 2018, up from just under 2 percent in 2000. The largest group identifies as Black, but the state also has significant populations of Asian immigrants, including Bhutanese refugees.
Many settle in Fargo, attracted to the city’s plentiful jobs in the manufacturing and health care industries, along with a relatively low cost of living. But some of the very opportunities that pull New Americans to the region also make them more vulnerable to COVID-19, according to Dabar. Immigrants working manufacturing or retail jobs cannot work from home, while those in the health care industry spend more time in COVID-19 hotspots such as nursing homes and hospitals. Immigrant communities tend to be lower income and less likely to own their own homes, while the state of North Dakota did not enact a rent moratorium during the pandemic. “At the end of the month, the landlord wants the rent,” Dabar said. “They can’t stay home even one day from work because they have kids to feed, they have rent to pay, they have bills to pay.”
Cultural and social factors heighten their vulnerability. Stigma against immigrants—who were sometimes blamed for spreading COVID-19, Dabar said—led some to avoid reporting their symptoms, while language barriers caused a general lack of information about the virus and its effects. Many immigrant families also live in large, multi-generational households where one infected person can spread the virus to multiple others, Dabar added.
In response, groups like Alier’s have worked to fill in the gaps where assistance from the state was lacking. Since vaccines became widely available early this year, Alier said the ESHARA project has been working on translating vaccine information into languages like Somali and Kurdish, speaking on local radio programs targeted toward immigrants and bringing health workers to mosques and churches to vaccinate people on the spot. Doing so has been difficult, though, as Alier said many people in his community get their information from WhatsApp groups or television channels from their home countries, which spread misinformation about vaccine safety.
These challenges make battling the pandemic in immigrant communities an uphill fight — one that can’t be addressed with a catch-all public information campaign, said Kawar Farok, whose Kurdish American Development Organization is part of the ESHARA Project. Instead, ESHARA’s care coordinators put in the painstaking work of talking to people individually, even connecting them with doctors who speak their language and can explain the vaccines to them in a way that they trust. But the lack of funding limits the work that groups like the ESHARA Project can do, hampering a swift response and threatening to extend the pandemic even further.
As the country braces for the pandemic to enter its third year, organizers like Alier, Dabar, and Farok believe the need for services targeted toward immigrants won’t go away. Nationwide, mutual aid networks—which gained popularity as a way for neighbors to directly support neighbors during the pandemic and last year’s racial justice protests—can provide small-scale, direct aid to immigrant communities with urgent needs. But entrenched organizations like ESHARA will need the active support of governments and large nonprofit foundations to ensure they can keep working within these communities.
“We continue to encourage our care coordinators to keep going,” Farok said. “But you can’t fight the fight without ammunition. You can keep fighting and keep raising morale, but if there’s more and more obstacles to getting your funding that’s already been approved, that becomes a challenge.”
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