Hakizimana Emmanuel helped a family of Ukrainian refugees move into an Edina apartment Friday, leaving them with encouraging words.
"You will be fine," said Emmanuel, a housing case manager for the International Institute of Minnesota who arrived as a refugee himself in 2019.
He and Stanislav Diborov, who fled Kyiv in December, shook hands. Emmanuel gave him a thumbs up.
"Stay positive," Emmanuel said, and they laughed.
Over the last year, he has eagerly helped the surge of Afghans and Ukrainians arriving here from war-ravaged nations through expedited channels. A native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Emmanuel has a passion for assisting refugees from around the globe.
Yet he laments that the U.S. has accepted a mere trickle of refugees from other nations — including his Congolese relatives trapped in camps for decades — through the traditional resettlement system despite President Biden's promises to dramatically increase their numbers.
"There should be a balance of working on the old traditional resettlement cases and … the current situation of Afghanistan and Ukrainian [arrivals] as well," Emmanuel said.
An enormous wave of Afghan and Ukranian people have come to America through expedited programs designed to give them temporary refuge — at least 76,000 from the former and 200,000 from the latter. But others from around the world are waiting years to come through the usual refugee system — a longer and more orderly path that leads to permanent citizenship — that has dramatically slowed.
After President Donald Trump drastically lowered the annual ceiling of refugees that America could admit, Biden hiked it to 125,000 for the last two years but fell far short: 25,400 traditional refugees, for instance, came in the 2022 fiscal year. The pandemic stranded thousands of refugees abroad. Several refugee resettlement leaders say that the government refugee interview process overseas is seeing delays even after air travel has returned to normal.
Those trends are playing out in Minnesota — just 533 people came to the state as official refugees in fiscal year 2022, 268 in 2021 and 386 in 2020. It was routinely several thousand a year during the Obama administration.
Meanwhile, the state's Department of Human Services counted 1,294 Afghans arriving here through Operation Allies Welcome last fiscal year, and more than 800 Ukrainians who have accessed federally funded services in the state since last March.
"The Biden administration has said they're going to do everything they can to increase the numbers and the flow and [improve] the systems overseas but we're definitely not seeing any result of that yet, which concerns me greatly," said Jane Graupman, executive director of the resettlement agency International Institute of Minnesota. "There's so many people in the world waiting to come — we have clients calling us, coming in, who are waiting for their family members to arrive."
Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota is still as busy as ever when counting the Afghans and Ukrainians it serves, "but the regular refugee flow has slowed and it's really a result of the infrastructure really needing to be rebuilt," said Maureen Warren, senior vice president of services.
The Biden administration recently announced the Welcome Corps, a new program that allows Americans to privately sponsor refugees from around the world. Sponsors would form a group and provide initial resettlement assistance after being vetted and trained to ensure they can give adequate support to new refugees. A similar initiative, Uniting for Ukraine, has already been the primary way for the U.S. to bring over refugees from that war. The state Department of Human Services says that 2,5422 applications have been filed by Minnesotans to sponsor Ukrainians.
Congolese people in recent years have been among the largest groups of newcomers arriving locally and nationally through the official refugee program.
Emmanuel, 35, fled the Democratic Republic of Congo as a boy in 1996, after his parents were killed as part of the genocide against Tutsis . He went to a refugee camp in northern Rwanda, where thousands more were killed in ethnic cleansing and others died of starvation and disease.
"It was hectic, hard and terrible," Emmanuel said.
He and his adoptive family didn't have enough to eat. The quality of schools was poor: He and a classmate would hold a blackboard for their teacher. Nonprofits and the United Nations later worked to build schools and Emmanuel dedicated himself to his education, hoping it would open a better future for him if he ever found a way out.
"My focus was on learning languages and being able to communicate with everybody, to people around the globe," he said.
Emmanuel's mother tongue was Kinyarwanda, and he became fluent in English, French and Swahili. He married and had two daughters. In 2014, they moved outside of the camp and he took a job as a front office manager at a hotel.
He started the resettlement process in 2016 and he, his wife and their children arrived in America in September 2019. Emmanuel's first job in Minnesota was serving meals to St. Paul high school students in the cafeteria. He took a job caring for children with disabilities and trained to be an interpreter and translator, and he and his wife welcomed a third child.
Then the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan; Emmanuel began working for the state as a site manager of a hotel that temporarily housed Afghan evacuees. Last June, he started working as a housing case manager for the International Institute of Minnesota, the agency that had resettled him.
"Now I have a place I call home after being stateless for so long … I have a place where I can have access to opportunities like any other American," Emmanuel said while sitting in the home he bought last year in Cottage Grove. "I have a place that my kids are feeling safe."
But his wife's parents started the resettlement process in 2015, and his brother started it in 2019. They are still waiting at a camp in Rwanda.
"They are staying there, sitting there the whole day, thinking about how they can survive — they don't see the future ... I miss them every day," said Mutuyimana Alice, Emmanuel's wife.
Emmanuel noted that some Congolese people have been in refugee camps since the mid-1990s.
"I think the U.S. government should act and process quickly resettlement for these families, for these refugees who have been stuck in a refugee camp more than two decades."
He resettled one Congolese family in the last year, and is slated to resettle another in mid-February. But much of his time these days is spent finding housing for Ukrainians. On Friday, he drove Diborov, his wife and two boys to their new apartment and offered to help them set up their furniture, though Diborov insisted he would do it.
Emmanuel surprised Diborov when he told him how he'd only come here a few years ago. He assured Diborov that he, too, would find success if he worked hard.
Overcome with gratitude, Diborov gave him a magnet of the world's largest plane called Mriya, or "dream" in Ukrainian, which was destroyed in the Russian invasion. Emmanuel held back tears, thinking of their shared hopes and struggles.