Can a life-swap exercise stop a community tearing itself in two?

By Jessica Lussenhop
BBC News, Fargo

Media caption,
Watch Ardayfio and Ouradnik share their stories.

When sizeable refugee populations from African and Muslim countries start resettling in communities that look, talk and pray nothing like them, friction and outright racism can follow. Can simple storytelling prevent that fate?

Just hours before an experimental gathering of immigrants and Midwesterners was set to convene on a small college campus in Moorhead, Minnesota, news hit of yet another alleged racist incident about two hours south-east.

A 23-year-old white passenger in a St Cloud, Minnesota taxi suddenly attacked and choked the Somali driver.

"Do you not know what these Muslims will do with a white American girl?" the police report quotes the man saying.

It's the kind of story that eats at Dawn Duncan, a professor of English and film at Concordia College in Moorhead, and the very type of incident she is trying to prevent from happening in the wider community of Moorhead, and Fargo, North Dakota, two cities clustered on the tundra-like border between the two states.

There have been violent attacks against immigrants throughout the region - a Molotov cocktail tossed through the window of a Somali restaurant in Grand Forks, North Dakota; a woman pursued through a grocery store in Moorhead by a man demanding she remove her hijab. In one incident that made national headlines, a white woman smashed a Somali woman across the face with a beer glass, after she insisted the Somali woman stop speaking Swahili.

And in 2016, a Somali man injured 10 people in a mass stabbing at a St Cloud mall, an attack that was later praised by the so-called Islamic State.

"I don't want St Cloud happening here," Duncan says.

And so, on a warm spring morning in early April, a group of 16 men and women gathered on the campus of Concordia College. There are two women wearing hijabs, another in a traditional Somali shash head covering. There are also women with bobbed haircuts and cardigans, men in plaid shirts, and one in a camouflage ball cap and boots with an American flag pattern stitched into the leather.

The attendees belong to one of two groups. In the first group, eight natives of the greater Fargo-Moorhead region. This group reflects the prevailing racial make-up of the surrounding community, which is 95% Caucasian. Several have lived here all their lives.

The second group is comprised of immigrants and refugees who resettled in the area from Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Ghana, Rwanda, Pakistan. Many are Muslim. Some have lived in the area for decades - others just a couple of years.

In 2016, North Dakota took in the second-most refugees in the US per capita. The majority came from Bhutan, Iraq and Somalia. About 76% of the 506 refugees who came to North Dakota in 2015 were settled in Fargo, a town in the midst of an economic revival with an unemployment rate of 2.5%. Many new arrivals find work in the local hospitality or healthcare industries, or in factories, doing meat processing or assembling farm equipment.

Image caption,
Hamida Dakane the day before the exchange, having dinner at a popular West African eatery in Fargo

Refugee resettlement has a long history in North Dakota - it began in the 1940s, during World War II, as a part of the mission of the Lutheran church when Lutherans from Germany, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia were fleeing Europe. But in recent decades, the arrivals to the region have increasingly been black and brown Muslims, triggering racial and religious tensions that Duncan observed with real concern.

"What had been hidden a long time was starting to erupt," she says. "[I wanted to] allow everyone in the room to meet and tell each other stories in a way that takes us away from this heated debate."

Duncan calls the group together and one by one they fill in a circle of chairs at the centre of the room.

Image caption,
Ouradnik, right, surprised his friend Zack Orvis by agreeing to it - "I think he can learn something"

The group has gathered as part of a two-day "story exchange" arranged by a group called Narrative 4. Each immigrant or refugee is partnered with a native Midwesterner, and on the first day the partners will tell each other a story from their lives. The next day, each participant tells their partner's story in the first person, as if it was their own.

"We're not here to discuss whether any more immigrants should come, whether we should continue to bring in immigrants or refugees," Duncan says.

"I can't be you, but I can try to step into your shoes."

There are nerves among the group members before the event.

"I'm not sure how that person is going to react to my story. I just have to keep in mind a little bit to be really cautious," says Nyamal Dei, a young mother who has lived in the US for 23 years after fleeing the civil war in Sudan.

"The community here are very welcoming - but not all the leaders," says 22-year-old Hukun Abdullahi, a Somali refugee who arrived in 2014 to be reunited with his mother after 15 years.

Image caption,
Oil tankers pull through Fargo

A former state Republican legislator frets that the event will be like walking "into an ambush".

Damon Ouradnik, a 40-year-old automation technician, uses another analogy - "jumping into a shark tank". Two years ago he launched an online petition called, "Stop refugee resettlement and Lutheran Social Services in North Dakota".

The petition led to the creation of a controversial bill called HB 1472 that would have empowered state and local officials to halt resettlement, though after hours of testimony against it by immigrants and refugees, the Republican-led legislature downgraded it to a study of the impact of refugees in North Dakota.

"I believe it's a bigger issue than anybody is talking about," says Ouradnik. "There's nothing racist in that petition at all. I'm just asking about our tax dollars."

Despite his doubts, he has agreed to give up his weekend to take part in Narrative 4.

The central idea of Narrative 4 is that by exchanging stories, people on either sides of various divides - be they political, socioeconomic, or cultural - can create "radical empathy".

Irish novelist Colum McCann co-founded Narrative 4 in 2013 with executive director Lisa Consiglio, with other heavy-hitters from the literary world and aided by a grant from the Bezos Family Foundation.

While his efforts began long before the divisive 2016 election, he believes that the group is more important now than ever.

"While I have my own political views, this organisation tries to be non-partisan," he says. "I need to listen to others - my ignorance in relation to what was happening in this country that I've lived in for the last 25 years was absolutely stunning."

Image source, Bryan Bedder
Image caption,
Novelist Colum McCann at a reading in New York

Narrative 4 has arranged story exchanges between people on either sides of issues like the gun debate - a mother who lost a child in a mass shooting partnered with gun rights advocate, for example. But the aim in Fargo-Moorhead is anchored around a town as well as an issue, and McCann hopes that creating empathy will have a lasting impact on the community, spreading as he puts it, "like any good virus".

It's also the kind of "empathy intervention" that social psychologists have studied for decades as a means to combat prejudice.

In certain iterations it can have an obvious, immediate positive impact on participants, but there are some drawbacks according to Nour Kteily, a professor who has studied "perspective taking" in negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

"There is a lot of work in social psychology that suggests that intergroup contact can be helpful," he says. "[However,] it can have the flavour of a feel-good exercise that doesn't change a lot on the ground. There's research that shows that can be frustrating on the low-power group."

But Duncan has real faith in the group's power to prevent the area from descending into the kind of racially charged climate seen elsewhere.

"I think this is doable," says Duncan. "Not only doable, I think it is crucial right now."

Image caption,
Hukun Abdullahi, left, testified against the bill that Damon Ouradnik, centre, helped to create

In the auditorium, Duncan announces who will be paired with whom: Hukun Abdullahi, who spends his days translating documents and job interviews for recently arrived immigrants and refugees, is paired with Nick Reitan, a college student and lifelong Fargo resident from a military and police family.

An Iraqi Yazidi refugee named Haroon Al-Hayder is paired with Rick Hall, a gentle, grandfatherly 72-year-old who had been an active supporter of the protests at Standing Rock.

Damon Ouradnik is partnered with Arday Ardayfio, a gregarious Ghanaian who came to Fargo in the late 1990s and now runs an IT consulting business. The eight pairs wander off together to find open classrooms in the building.

In an empty computer lab, Dei tells her partner, Moorhead City Councilwoman Sara Watson Curry, about the years-long process it took to find her mother in a camp in Ethiopia, and her disappointment at not being able to bring her to the US.

"She passed away from malaria and typhoid," she says. "My first paycheque went to her funeral."

Al-Hayder describes the experience of watching an IS rocket arc over his uncle's home in a small town in Kurdistan, and helping protect other Yazidis fleeing from the genocide in the Sinjar Mountains. He recalls the dangerous journey he made with his family to the Turkish border, where they slept for weeks in an abandoned school before escaping.

He talks about the email from the US embassy, informing the family they'd been accepted into the country as refugees.

"It was the happiest news I ever heard in my life," he says.

A few of the Fargoans seem to feel wary comparing their lives to ones filled with violence, war and trauma.

"As you can imagine, I don't have such a horrific story," Hall tells Al-Hayder. "My life has been pretty good."

Image caption,
Nyamal Dei exchanges stories with newly elected Moorhead City Councilwoman Sara Watson Curry

Abdullahi's partner Nick Reitan describes what it was like attending the local high school, where he was too scared to come out as gay.

"It's a very difficult topic in the Midwest," he says. "I'm even hesitant right now even saying it."

Peggy Torrance, a human resources worker at the college, describes herself to her partner as an "includer" who was disappointed after being discouraged from applying for a job as a diversity coordinator because she is white.

"I never thought about my race. I never thought about anybody else's race," she says. "What I care about is who they are as a person."

Her partner, Fowzia Adde, a Somali refugee, becomes overwrought recalling what it was like to be alone in the US with her family stranded behind in Kenya, and has to stop.

Image caption,
"I never thought about anybody else's race," Peggy Torrance says.

After the session is over, the group breaks for lunch. Adde makes herself a plate of food and sits, looking shell-shocked. She's lived in the US for decades. She's a successful businesswoman, a prominent figure in the local Somali community on the cusp of opening Fargo's first international marketplace.

Yet, she says, she realised in the room with her partner that she hasn't processed the turmoil from her past.

"I should have unpacked it before, so when I come to this session I would be ready. I was not ready," she says.

"So tomorrow is going to be something else, too."

The next morning, Sunday, the group reconvenes in the auditorium for the story exchange - the "most important part", says Duncan. Now each participant will try to recreate their partner's story for the larger group.

Ouradnik arrives bleary-eyed after pulling an unexpected all-night shift at his job. His partner is nervous.

"I had no clue he started that petition," Ardayfio says quietly. "I had to show him immigrants are not here to take."

Of all the native Fargoans, Ouradnik is the only one who spoke explicitly about the refugee resettlement issue in town. In their stories, the other Midwesterners spoke generally of inclusion, formative trips to other countries and cultures. The former state legislator avoided all partisan political talk.

In his research, Professor Nour Kteily says this is a common critique of empathy-building exercises, especially when they cross racial lines.

"There's a lot of work that suggests when whites are talking to blacks, there is a discomfort, there's a need to prove you're above the racist fray," he says. "Which is fine, but there's a bigger picture of policy, concrete action that you don't end up engaging in."

The organisers from Narrative 4 had a long list of potential conservative invitees, at the top of which were those who'd spoken fervently in favour of re-examining or halting resettlement in Fargo. They either refused the invitation, cited scheduling conflicts, or did not respond.

"Here's the reality of this - nobody wants to go near this because [they'll say] you're a racist," says one of the legislators who declined to attend because of a scheduling conflict. "No elected official even wants to talk about it."

Image caption,
Hamida Dakane and Gina Sandgren during their story exchange

The second day begins with the exchange between a Kenyan immigrant named Hamida Dakane and her partner, Gina Sandgren.

"I am Hamida Dakane," Sandgren starts off. "I grew up in Northern Kenya, in a town called Mandera, where the seemingly easy task of staying alive was actually harder than dying."

When Sandgren gets to the deaths of Dakane's childhood friends during a famine, Dakane abruptly stands up and walks out. Abdullahi is pinching his right forearm over and over again, staring at the carpet.

"I work 80 hours a week to support myself," Sandgren continues, though she's in tears as well. "It's very busy but it keeps me focused. I don't want to spend even one idle hour watching TV, because it makes me think of the past."

Dakane returns, holding a stack of napkins to wipe her eyes.

"Today, being a woman, an immigrant, a black Muslim, it's just hard," she says. "At times I feel like I'm everything this government is fighting against."

The room is filled with the sound of sniffing. Someone brings in a wad of tissues. Then Ardayfio begins Ouradnik's story.

Image caption,
Arday Ardayfio with his partner, Damon Ouradnik

"My name is Damon Ouradnik ... I decided to do this because I started a petition," Ardayfio begins.

"People still call me names, people call me racist. People call me a xenophobic against people coming into this country. I'm a very nice guy. I work with a lot of immigrants. I know their families, I know their kids. There's not a single racist bone in my body. It was hard to see and hear people say that on social media."

When Ardayfio finishes, Ouradnik straightens himself, and begins, his deep voice shaking slightly.

"My name is Arday Ardayfio ... When I came here it was the first time that I'd ever experienced the brutal cold, but it was definitely offset by the warm people that were here. I started out, got to New York, I had $25 in my pocket ... I took a Greyhound from New Jersey to Fargo, North Dakota. That obviously is a very daunting journey."

After another difficult story exchange between Fowzia Adde and her partner Peggy Torrance, Dakane says quietly, "We need a break," and the group filters out of the room.

"I wanted to leave," confesses Abdullahi. Hearing Dakane and Adde's stories resonated too painfully with his own 15-year-long ordeal to escape from the Horn of Africa.

Image caption,
"We can have a disagreement but can talk to each other," Hukun Abdullahi says,

"I always like to start my life from when I arrived in Fargo," he says.

At some point during the lunch break, Ouradnik drifts over to Abdullahi and Dakane and the trio starts discussing refugee resettlement in the area. Ouradnik insists he only cares about the costs, Abdullahi explains how his organisation works to help new arrivals find work.

"This is what America is all about - we can have a disagreement but can talk to each other," says Abdullahi. "We can show people we don't hate each other."

After the lunch break, the final pairs exchange stories, there's one last break for coffee, then a wrap-up session. Fowzia Adde notices when Ouradnik leaves before the event is finished.

She campaigned hard against the law that Ouradnik helped to create, and says she was relieved not to have been his partner.

Still, she says she felt compelled to know more about him, and asked if he would have coffee with her. He invited her to visit his home.

"I told myself, 'This man is hurting somewhere,'" she says. "That's what I was thinking about."

Image caption,
Damon Ouradnik and Fowzia Adde during a break after the story exchange

In his two-story duplex on a cul-de-sac in West Fargo, Ouradnik has some quiet time after the exchange, before his wife and two small children return from running errands.

During one of the warm-up exercises that morning, Duncan asked the group to mention one person who welcomed them at some point in their lives, whether it was a neighbour, a mentor or friend. Ouradnik didn't say anything at the time.

"I wanted to make the opposite point - actually nobody welcomed me, ever," he says, seated at his kitchen table.

Ouradnik says he was raised in a very small sect of a strict religion, in a town in northern Minnesota. Abuse and alcoholism within his family lead Ouradnik to emancipate himself at the age of 16. He says was ostracised from his former community and went to a foster family.

He worked construction jobs, and got into drugs and drinking. Then came strings of arrests and jail time. He went cold turkey in his 30s, then back to school, and has risen to management at his job.

Even though he didn't say so in the group, Ouradnik realised that he feels he has a lot in common with his partner, Arday - they are both living their versions of the American Dream.

"If I can do it there's no excuse for anybody else," he says. "If Arday has the opportunity to come from Ghana, come here, go to Concordia, start his own business and now being in 36 states doing what he does - if all these people have that ability, it's never too late in America.

"The guy's awesome."

It was a real connection - but is it enough?

McCann doesn't believe it's possible to chart the success or failure of a story exchange.

"You don't really know what you've prevented and you don't really know what you've succeeded in doing," he says. "Ultimately, I think that you know that there is a fundamental shift that can be done when you started to look across the fence and look at other people and look beyond your own small life."

Duncan says that since the end of the exchange, she's been in contact with several of the participants - Abdullahi, Dakane, Hall, Sandgren. They've become Facebook friends, and are helping organise the next story exchange.

Duncan is optimistic that not only will the exchange naturally perpetuate itself, there may also be a little less trepidation from future participants.

And even though there was no out-and-out debate, no confrontations over politics or race, Duncan thought she heard in at least three of the native Fargoans an attempt to struggle with issues they might have made no attempt to confront otherwise.

"They're sending me names of people who they think want to try this in the future. I've already gotten people sending me notes that, 'yes I would like to try this'."

The next Fargo story exchange will take place this summer.