New American Series: Iraqis

August 29, 2014

We are finishing a series on the five largest ethnic groups to be resettled to Sioux Falls in the last five years by the Center for New Americans (CNA). Upcoming blog posts will focus on the following topics: Conflict History, Cultural Differences, and New American Success Stories. Please join us as we learn together about our new neighbors and their courageous stories.

New American Series: Iraqis

Conflict History

In researching the history of Iraq, I had to keep reminding myself that I was focusing on the conflict(s) that led to the resettlement of our most recent group of Iraqis to the United States. The region of Iraq has known conflict and foreign military intervention throughout its history, which is quite extensive as some of the earliest known non-nomadic agrarian societies originated between its two major rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates.  From the ancient powers of Babylon, Assyria, and Persia and later the Greeks and Romans, until its conquest by Muslim Arabs whose ruling Abbasid caliphs made Baghdad their capital of an empire that stretched from Spain across Asia to parts of India, the region has been the backdrop of major world history. Mongols invaded in 1258 and in the fifteenth century the region was eventually conquered by the Ottoman Turks. As part of the Ottoman Empire, the region was brought into international politics at the conclusion of World War I in 1918. Great Britain exercised imperial and political influence until Iraq became an independent political entity in 1932. The “young” Iraq experienced political instability, including several coups, and tension with neighboring countries. A successful bloodless coup d’état in July 1968 brought the Ba ‘th Party, a nationalistic and socialistic-minded party, into power and within its ranks was Saddam Hussein, who acted as Vice President. He helped bring Iraq back into good relations with many of its neighbors—excluding Israel—after its slide into almost total isolation. He proclaimed himself President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces in 1979.

Saddam Hussein (photo courtsey of Wikipedia)

Saddam Hussein (photo courtsey of Wikipedia)

Saddam’s rise to power was due in large part to his leadership of Iraq’s internal security forces. Saddam’s internal security apparatus, including a newly created Presidential Guard, tolerated absolutely no dissent or opposition either from party members or ethnic groups within Iraq. Under his rule, Iraq did see economic development and political stability but at the cost of great personal freedom and civil rights. In 1980, Saddam led Iraq into a military conflict with neighboring Iran that lasted eight years. Both sides supported opposition groups within each other’s borders in attempts to destabilize each other. In 1990 he invaded Kuwait, which brought Iraq into military conflict with the United States. Due to its many military conflicts and constant need to quell any internal opposition from marginalized groups, Saddam amassed a large arsenal of weapons and military armaments. U.S. foreign policy towards Iraq and Saddam’s regime morphed from initial containment to support for a complete regime change, which was accelerated following terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001. Grouping Saddam’s regime with a larger “axis of evil,” the U.S. military and coalition forces overthrew the regime in 2003. Saddam was executed December 30th, 2006.

Coalition forces set up the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) as a transitional government within Iraq and implemented several actions to increase the governmental power of the marginalized Shias and Kurds and disband its military apparatus. From early on, violent and frequent clashes occurred between coalition forces and opposition forces such as disenfranchised Ba’th leaders, Sunnis, former Iraqi army and intelligence officers, and al-Qa’ida, an international terrorist network that only started to exist within Iraq after 2003. A fledgling and weak Iraqi Transitional Government left a destabilized Iraq open to waves of sectarian violence that engulfed it. Suicide bombings, attacks against civilians, death squads, and assassinations became daily occurrences for Iraqi citizens.

Initially Sunni and Shi’I leaders preached national cohesion and played down ethnic and sectarian differences, but the cycle of sectarian killings and revenge took its tool. In 2006, the bombing of the Imam al-‘Askari Shrine, a historic Shi’I mosque, opened the floodgates to sectarian killing. Both Sunni and Shi’I militias engaged in widespread ethnic cleansing in Baghadad and elsewhere. Neighborhoods that had always had a mixed population became homogeneous.[i]   

Today as Iraq’s democratic government tries to move the country forward towards unity among its major factions, the country remains a battleground of sectarian violence, bombings, and terrorist-led attacks, the most recent being by those of Isis.

Map shows the three major sects within Iraq.  Photo courtesy of CNN.

Map shows the three major sects within Iraq. Photo courtesy of CNN.

[i] Cultural Orientation Resource Center, Center for Applied Linguistics. “Refugees from Iraq: Their History, Cultures, and Background Experiences” COR Center Enhanced Refugee Backgrounder No. 1. October 2008

Thinking Outside the Box

August 25, 2014

Ruts. If you have driven any gravel roads, you know what I mean. The trip to my parents’ house involves at least one mile of gravel road. Depending on how recently the road grader has gone through, this can be an incredibly rough trip. You see, the road gets a fair amount of traffic between residents of the area and farmers headed to their fields with heavy equipment. Throw in a little rain to soften things up and you have a ride that can vibrate your kidneys until they are rattling against your lungs. Read the rest of this entry »

100+ Strong

August 21, 2014

Last March, LSS Mentoring launched an ambitious goal of recruiting 500 new mentors. This school year, we are thermometer aug 151/5th of the way there, with a little over 100 new volunteer mentors!

We are eager to share the experiences of our new volunteers as they embark on their journey. There is sure to be a lot of information shared, games played, craft projects completed and most of all, relationships built this year. With this great success of reaching 100 new volunteers, we know there is a lot more work to be done until every student who wants or needs a mentor has one.

Changes are happening in Sioux Falls, and schools often are where these changes are first noticed. The Government Research Bureau at the University of South Dakota recently did an analysis of the Sioux Falls School District. In their report, some key findings include: Read the rest of this entry »

Two Centenarians* Resettled to Sioux Falls from Nepal: Part II, Karna

August 19, 2014

*People 100 Years or Older

Last week, we shared the story of Basun, a recently arrived refugee originally from Bhutan, who is 109 years old. This week, we share the story of Karna, who is 104 years old.

Karna at home in Sioux Falls

Karna at home in Sioux Falls

Karna was resting on the couch when Deo and I entered, but sat up to speak with us with some assistance. From the increased volume in Deo’s voice, I knew Karna must have difficulty hearing and Karna succinctly expressed his infirmities soon after we sat down. “I am at home. I can’t work. I can’t see. I can’t hear.” For being 104 years old, Karna still had a good sense of humor and had us frequently laughing at some of the comments he made about his age. Karna’s family is Hindu and he joked about how when he turned one hundred, he was reborn and now was only four years old. “I’m a baby,” he said smiling.

Karna was born in the eastern part of Nepal and as a young man, immigrated to Bhutan. He spent sixty years in Bhutan moving locations about every twenty years. He worked as a farmer and also as a government official of a district, a kind of “village head,” Deo said. While in Bhutan, he raised a family of three sons and twelve daughters. He was in a Nepali refugee camp for twenty-one years before being resettled to Sioux Falls. I asked how he felt about leaving Nepal and he said he was happy to leave and was comfortable now. Deo tried to translate a kind of poem Karna recited about the many transitions in his life. It went something like this: “You are born in one place, grow in one place; and die somewhere else, the destination is unknown.” I asked about challenges, and Karna expressed concern for his health and about feeling tension with his family “scattered.” Like Basun, he desired family reunification. I found out from Karna’s daughter-in-law that one of Karna’s sons would be resettled to Sioux Falls soon.

As we finished our conversation, Karna’s personal caregiver stepped in to help him recline once more on the couch and cover up comfortably with a blanket. He blessed Deo and me as we left and that blessing continues to be felt. I am happy to know Basun and Karna are able to spend their last years in comfort with access to quality medical care. I am grateful for Deo and the ability to share just a part of their story with you. I am also left reflecting on how the challenges for older refugees—of transportation issues affecting social lives and missing family—are not altogether different from the challenges facing older Americans.

Deo and the rest of the staff at LSS Center for New Americans continue to strive to provide premier service and support for resettled families, but we cannot do it alone. Can you volunteer in our English classrooms or provide mentorship for a recently arrived refugee or family?

Ameri-what? The Best College Job Ever.

August 15, 2014

Have you heard of AmeriCorps? For many in South Dakota, the answer is likely no. LSS is one of a handful of non-profits in the state to recently receive funding from Serve South Dakota to implement this important program at our agency.

First, let me put it out there that AmeriCorps members are amazing! We are wrapping up our current program year and it has been great to reflect on what they have done throughout LSS. More on that later…for now, here is a quick background on AmeriCorps. Read the rest of this entry »

Two Centenarians* Resettled to Sioux Falls from Nepal: Part I, Basun

August 14, 2014

*People 100 Years or Older

At the end of July, I had the privilege of interviewing Basun and Karna, two of Sioux Falls’ oldest refugees served by LSS Center for New Americans. Deo Rai, a direct service worker who specifically serves older refugees in Sioux Falls, introduced me and provided interpretation services. On our drive to meet Basun and Karna, I asked Deo what were some of the biggest challenges older refugees face. Transportation, not being able to drive places themselves or have relatives who drive, can be difficult and affects older refugees’ social life as they can be confined to their residences. Providing home care can be difficult as regulations state that a caregiver cannot be someone “from the same roof,” meaning someone who lives with them, like a family member. Deo also mentioned a language barrier; though spoke against a cultural barrier. “Some people say a cultural barrier, but that is not so. Refugees can adapt. We all know adaptation is important. It is the language that is a barrier.”  

Basun in her new home in Sioux Falls

Basun in her new home in Sioux Falls

Basun is 109 years old. When we arrived at her family’s house, she was resting, so her daughter, Lachi, and granddaughter, Man, spoke with us. Read the rest of this entry »

Back to School Already?

August 13, 2014

This week marks the last week of our Summer School Age Program. You may think we are ready to send the kids back to their teachers. I will admit that they are starting to get a little more wound up. However, that is not the reason we are ready for school to begin. We are so excited to send the kids back so that they can wow their new teachers with all that they have learned this summer! Our halls will be quieter each day before 2:45 but we will miss the joy that the school age kids bring us each day.


We are sad to see the summer end because it was filled with fun and learning but we are so excited for a season of more new beginnings and after-school adventures. Our summer was filled with field trips, messes, friendship, giggles, splashes, learning and of course memories.Friday will be a day of tears, hugs and “see you soon.” Monday will bring a different energy and the exhausted kids will tell us all about classrooms, friends, new teachers and fresh crayons.

As we look to the new school year we have limited openings for our after school programs. Please feel free to spread the word if you hear of someone looking for fun and learning after school. We have openings to pick up additional students at the following Sioux Falls Elementary Schools: Robert Frost, Mark Twain, John Harris Harvey Dunn, Rosa Parks, Terry Redlin and Cleveland. We are full for some of our other locations but are happy to place families on a waiting list if they need a program.

Preschool starts for the school year next week too but I’ll tell you all about that in a future blog post! I’m off to sharpen some more pencils!

-Heather DeWit, Director of Childcare and Education Services


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