Reading, writing & resilience: After rough starts in life, 9 unaccompanied refugee minors graduate

Eric came to the US alone at age 8. Now he's a graduate with plans for college!

On May 31, students from Fargo Davies High School officially graduated as one class, even as they sat 6 feet apart from each other in the bleachers of their football stadium.

In addition to the traditional cap-and-gown, the students donned masks with the Davies Eagle printed on the outside. Their families watched the graduation ceremony in folding chairs spread out across the football field.

Eric was among the excited graduates waiting to receive their diplomas that Sunday afternoon. After moving to the United States from Rwanda as an unaccompanied refugee minor (URM) at just 8 years old, he was placed with a foster family in Fargo.

Alone in a new world

URM is part of the refugee resettlement program at Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota. The URM program helps place kids who entered the United States without a parent into a licensed foster home and provides services similar to those received by children in the domestic foster care system.

“Most children who are a part of our program came here alone,”says Erika Freeberg, a case manager with the program. “Parents have often passed away or the child wasn’t safe living with their parents. Oftentimes, kids lived in refugee camps and waited quite some time to get here.”

Eric is one of nine unaccompanied refugee minors who got to walk across the stage and accept their high school diplomas this year. Eight of the high school graduates, including Eric, have plans to pursue a college degree, and many of them are already working part-time jobs.

Additionally, two former URM students are celebrating their college graduations this spring. One received a nursing degree from NDSU and plans to continue their education and pursue a doctor of nursing practice/family nurse practitioner degree, and the other graduated with a degree in social work from MSUM and also has plans to attend graduate school.

Resilient and ready to soar

Even with the shift to distance learning halfway through the spring semester due to the coronavirus pandemic, these students managed to stay motivated and finish the school year strong.

Katie Behrend, the URM team lead at LSSND, says she is not surprised that the students adjusted so well to the many changes they were faced with this spring.

“Given the nature of their journey here, many of them have already experienced so many changes. They are very resilient.” – Katie Behrend, URM team lead.

Eric says that the cancelation of the end of his senior year was definitely disappointing, but he’s relieved he got to have an in-person ceremony to accept the diploma he worked so hard to earn.

As Eric prepares for the transition to college this fall, he is still unsure what major he will pursue. However, we know he will be successful wherever he ends up.

When asked what advice he has for next year’s high school seniors, Eric said: “Try your best. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.”

LSSND is always recruiting loving foster homes to welcome unaccompanied refugee minors. If you are interested or would like to receive more information, please contact Amy Messner at 701-271-1624.

Story by Micayla Bitz

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