Refugees give back to adoptive N.D. city

Dave Kolpack
Associated Press

Fargo, N.D. — Maria Modi’s journey from South Sudan to a new life in Fargo included a stop at a refugee camp in Cairo. She and her seven siblings know what it is like to be hungry.

“My mother and father work 12-hour shifts and still sometimes we don’t get enough food at home to last us a week,” said Modi, a Fargo North High School senior who plans to study music and theater in college next year.

She and a group of other students, most from poor refugee families, spent the Thursday before Thanksgiving handing out turkey and cranberries to the hungry of Fargo, which welcomed their arrival from places such as Nepal, Sudan and Liberia. The students, nearly all of whom qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, recently opened a food pantry as part of the Legacy Children’s Foundation, a nonprofit that helps them earn diplomas while finding out what they’re good at doing.

“I come from a little, poor country,” said Fargo North sophomore Puja Chhertri, one of the food pantry organizers whose family emigrated from Nepal. “There are people on the street there who are eating from garbage.”

The Legacy students have done numerous public service projects, including making and distributing hand-tied fleece blankets to the homeless, running a school carnival and helping at nursing homes and day care centers. This is their first attempt at feeding those in need.

“It’s about hungry kids serving hungry neighbors,” said Mary Jean Dehne, the group’s executive director.

Fargo takes in more refugees than most American cities, as a proportion of its population. In the past decade, the Lutheran Social Services program has resettled an average of 450 refugees per year in North Dakota, about 70 percent of whom ended up in Fargo, the state’s biggest city.

The Legacy students have tabbed their operation K.I.D.S., for Kindness Is Doing Service. They order the food from the Great Plains Food Bank, stock the shelves, follow a budget and recruit others for food drives. Once a week, they hand out food from a garage in the city’s Golden Ridge section, which is home to many low-income families. They also deliver food to some homes.

“Not to sound cliche, but it feels good just giving back,” said Quame’ Rauls, a Legacy student who is not from a refugee family.

Peter Saintal, 23, a second-generation refugee who went through the Legacy program and is now its president, said he “saw what poor looks like” when he returned to Haiti with his family three years ago. He said many people in Fargo would be surprised to learn they have neighbors who are suffering.

“I mean, there are people out there who don’t get meals or food,” Saintal said. “There’s a misconception out there that it’s only homeless people who need food, but that’s not it. There’s a lot of people who go hungry, whether they have a house or a car or whatever the case may be.”

In its first two weeks in operation, the pantry served about 150 children and 125 adults. They gave away 1,500 pounds of groceries as well as personal hygiene items and laundry detergent. They are focusing on providing protein-rich foods to families whose diets are overloaded with carbohydrates such as ramen noodles and macaroni and cheese.

“The people who come here are so happy,” Chhertri said. “It just makes your day when they smile and say thank you. You know you are making a little bit of difference in the community.”

The group also handed out turkey and cranberries before Thanksgiving, an American holiday the Legacy students have learned to appreciate.

“We’re doing something for people who might not have a Thanksgiving otherwise,” Saintal said. “It’s something that we should be thankful for.”