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Retirees Lend A Hand To Refugees In Fargo, N.D.

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The modern image of social entrepreneurs may be young Internet hipsters or eco-inventors in Africa. But a community improvement effort in Fargo, N.D., grew out of the unlikeliest of places: a retirement home and assisted-living facility.

The average age of residents at Riverview Place is 80, something marketing director Bonnie Peters long considered an asset worth tapping into.

They have "lots of knowledge, lots of experience, a wealth of information that they could share," she says. "And so I always had this dream of coming up with something that would connect them with a population that they could mentor or serve or help."

At first, Peters thought that population could be at-risk teens. Then, one day a decade ago, it became clear. Refugees from Bosnia and northern Iraq had begun arriving in Fargo by the hundreds. They needed lots of help. Peters felt she had just the answer.

Deep Bonds

Peters secured funding for a nonprofit she called Giving + Learning, and started matching up retirees with refugees.

"It was a new experience," says 98-year-old Helen Glawe, leaning on her walker. "We really didn't know what we were getting into."

Glawe sits in Riverview's library, along with fellow mentor Carol Brooks, 72.

"I have mentored people from Africa, China, Bosnia, too," Brooks says.

Like many at the retirement home, neither has traveled outside the U.S.

Glawe is a former teacher, but the two had to improvise when they were challenged with helping an elderly Bosnian couple learn English.

"When we first met them, we were in a coffee shop," Glawe says. "And so I talked about the cup and the saucer and cookies. That was the only thing that you could make them realize what it was all about."

Glawe says she and the Bosnian couple had a good time together.

And some deep bonds have formed over the years.

Brooks wears a thick gold bracelet of charms engraved with the names and birth dates of those she's helped: Santiago, Andrei, Hussam. She says a lot of them call her Mom.

"In fact," Brooks says, "when Mohammed's wife was having a baby, I was in the birthing room at Meritcare. And I told these white nurses, 'I am Mohammed's mother!' They looked at me kinda funny."

'It's Having A Friend'

Volunteers like these women are filling a gap in refugee resettlement. By the time federal aid for new arrivals runs out, many men are in the workplace. Children are in school, immersed in American culture. But young moms, and those without a job or car, are often left isolated and frustrated.

Rachel Mertz of Giving + Learning lines up volunteers to visit them at home.

"Just having that one-on-one interaction with somebody, it's more than just learning English," Mertz says. "It's having a friend. It's having that one connection with somebody in the community -- and that's invaluable."

Over the years refugees have continued to come, from Somalia, Sudan, Bhutan, and more than a dozen other places. The demand for help soon outstripped the supply of willing residents at the retirement center, so Mertz reached out to civic groups and local universities. Now, students can get credit for being mentors. And as word of the program has spread, there's a steady stream of people calling up to offer at least one hour a week of their time.

Despite a minuscule budget and bare-bones staff, Giving + Learning has had a big impact on this fast-changing Great Plains town. Over the past decade, 550 mentors have helped more that 800 refugee families

Learning To Drive

Mahawa Jusu wishes she'd learned about the program earlier. She fled the civil war in Liberia, and spent years in a refugee camp before arriving in Fargo in 2006. She discovered what she most needed was to learn to drive. In her rural village, Jusu says, women were not allowed behind the wheel. So for 3 years, she's waited for buses, enduring winter's frigid temperatures and whipping winds, and making a long journey out of what would be a short drive.

"If I have to go to my working place," she says, "I have to spend one hour, 45 minutes. I have to change three buses."

When a friend finally took Jusu to the Department of Motor Vehicles, she was utterly unprepared. First, she learned there was a test. Then she was told to take it on computer No. 7.

"I don't even know how to use the computer," she almost whispers, recalling the gut-punch she felt. "That was my first time."

After flunking twice, Jusu finally was put in touch with Giving + Learning volunteer Cliff Tuttle. He's a retired businessman who's found a calling helping dozens of refugees. Tuttle drew a diagram of the DMV computer for Jusu to study, and grilled her relentlessly, until she finally got her learner's permit.

"OK, got your seat belt on?" he asks, as Jusu settles into the driver's seat of an aged white minivan.

Jusu slowly pulls out of the parking lot and maneuvers winding residential streets, her eyes straight ahead as Tuttle offers gentle direction.

"Don't cut the corner, don't cut the corner," he says. "There you go, that's good."

Tuttle times these lessons so Jusu can practice driving to and from her evening shift at work. It's a gracious gesture that saves her hours of time, but he brushes off any praise.

"The ultimate sacrifice is when I let her drive to Wal-Mart," he deadpans. "God help us, I hate shopping!"

Full Circle

Fargo's integration effort isn't just about sacrifice; from the start, it's also had a key focus on self interest. Like many places, this is an aging community, and Giving + Learning has helped supply something Fargo desperately needs: certified nursing assistants.

"Hello, hello, how are you?" Zuhra Vukomanovic sings, as she knocks and enters a suite at Riverview Place retirement community.

Vukomanovic fled Bosnia's war, and was among the first wave of refugees in Fargo. A resident at Riverview helped her study for her CNA certification, and now Vukomanovic works right here.

"You need something?" she asks a newly arrived resident whose arthritis has flared overnight. Vukomanovic then helps the woman get dressed, massaging her hurting feet before coaxing them into orthopedic shoes.

Vukomanovic says she loves her job. And for an organization that's done so much for her, she welcomes this chance to pay back. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

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