Katia Iverson refuses to say “maybe.”
She used to say it a lot, as a novice caseworker, unwilling to share disheartening news. But experience has vanquished the word from her vocabulary.
“When a mother asks whether her kids qualify for assistance, and you respond with, ‘Well, maybe’ when you know the answer will become a ‘No,’ you give those families false hope,” she said. “It’s much better to be direct and clear: ‘Yes, we can help’ or ‘No, we can’t,’ and if we can’t, let’s not waste time and instead figure out a solution—together.”
Iverson is part of a team of 15 “ex-maybe-ers,” who each year assist roughly 400 people—from world-class bodybuilders and doctors to farmers, models, and priests. She and her colleagues guide this cross-section of humanity through securing living arrangements, establishing benefits, landing jobs, and plotting out bus routes to school. Her clients couldn’t be more varied—some are single, while others have 13 children; some speak five languages, while others cannot read or write.
But they all share the same status: refugee.
Each fled their home country because of persecution based on race, religion, ethnicity, social group, or political opinion. They applied for refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which verified their claims. They applied for resettlement in the United States through a years-long screening process before the U.S. Department of State invited them to pursue a direct path to citizenship.
They arrived on planes, welcomed by strangers.
“No one wants to be a refugee,” said Iverson, a team manager for the Minnesota Council of Churches’ Refugee Services. “Many have lived in terrible conditions and experienced unimaginable trauma. Nearly everyone dreams of returning to their homeland—to the family and friends who speak their language, observe their customs, and prepare familiar foods.
“Being a refugee is their last option.”
The 90-day challenge
Refugees resettling in the United States come through a state agency or one of nine voluntary agencies that have cooperative agreements with the State Department to provide reception and placement services. Minnesota Council of Churches’ Refugee Services has welcomed immigrants to Minnesota since 1985, and Iverson has done so on its behalf since 2013.
“The clock is ticking from the time refugees walk off the plane. We have 90 days to help them start their lives in Minnesota,” said Iverson, who has welcomed hundreds of refugees to America’s shores. “The federal government provides slightly more than $900 per person to get each family started, but we rely on the support of faith communities, nonprofits, and individual volunteers to help these newcomers gain self-sufficiency.”
Iverson is glad to work in one of the more welcoming U.S. states, with Minnesota having resettled more than 90,000 refugees since 1970. But increasingly critical rhetoric around refugees has made life on the front lines tough as the 28-year-old struggles with landlords hesitant to rent to “those people” and discrimination at new arrivals’ workplaces or schools.
Increasing day-to-day challenges thicken amid confounding regulations and tightening policies. For the 2018 fiscal year, for instance, the federal government has capped refugee admissions nationwide at 45,000—the lowest in decades—and arrivals aren’t even on pace to reach half that number, according to the United Nations.
“There is fear and uncertainty, but for me, the toughest part of the job remains the short window of time I have with families,” Iverson said of her three-month timeline. “To make real progress, clients need to be open, but they have been telling their life story—almost on autopilot—for years, and trust doesn’t come easily for many of them, especially with strangers.”
Building trust among the doubtful
Ahmednor Farah has seen Iverson knock down walls of resistance. For four years, the native Somali worked alongside Iverson as a resettlement case manager and interpreter. Katia can flip a switch, he said, from boundless compassion—crying alongside a despairing client—to sober sincerity when she has to administer doses of reality. Clear boundaries within an expanse of empathy is the job.
“Katia’s role is challenging, and only a person with her integrity can deliver the way she delivers,” said Farah, who now works as a human services representative for Hennepin County, where he said low-income families, including refugee arrivals, apply for food and cash benefits. “Katia managed to learn Somali, as the majority of her clients were Somalis, and she pushes back at the systems working against these families to make sure they receive equitable and just support.”
Her family has witnessed Iverson’s devotion. Younger brother, Luke
Iverson ’15, roomed with Katia for several years. He comforted her when she would worry about “families not making it” and understood when Katia had to cancel plans in order to meet a new arrival or help negotiate with a landlord.
Minnesota has the highest number of refugees per capita nationwide, according to the U.S. Census and refugee-support agencies. With 2 percent of the nation’s population, Minnesota has 13 percent of its refugees.
“Sometimes Katia would leave the house at 11 p.m. to head to the airport, but she’d always be at work by 8:30 a.m. the next day, following up with those clients or others,” said Luke, a financial advisor with Ameriprise Financial in downtown Minneapolis. “Her life is unconventional, but it is the times of deep connection and joy that I believe feed her the most and remind her why she is doing this work in the midst of a climate that fights against her and these families.”
It’s all worth it, Katia said. “There is challenge and sadness in my job, but the positive far outweighs any negative. The resilience of these families is incredible. They are so present and bring with them long-held traditions—how to heal when we don’t have a doctor nearby or how to provide emotional healing to one another— that adds a richness to our world. They invite me into a deep foundation of wisdom, and that is a gift.”
A heart for service, a passion for others
Katia was meant for this work. From a young age, her parents drove their four children from the predominantly white suburbs of Minneapolis to engage in missions in the Phillips neighborhood and other low-income areas.
This focus on service inspired Iverson to enroll at Augsburg University, nestled among some of the state’s most prominent refugee settlements. She was an international relations major until her introductory class focused on “the way nations and leaders interacted rather than the humans living in those nations,” Katia said.
Mid-year, the then-first-year student headed to the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, during which world leaders and peacemakers interact with students and community members. Waiting for a keynote to begin, Katia struck up a conversation about career options with fellow Auggies sitting near her.
A voice popped into the conversation: “I’m Professor Frankie Shackleford, and I’m developing a new major: cross-cultural studies. You should consider it.”
Katia spoke with the professor of Norwegian—and continued to talk for four years—about the influence language has on our world and the insight people gain when they imagine life through others’ perspectives.
“I continue to rely on the lessons I learned at Augsburg as I consider the impact of my work and what I bring to each home,” said Katia, who went on to participate in the Forum’s Peace Scholars program and graduate magna cum laude. “I am constantly analyzing the energy I bring, the questions I ask, and the way I ask them. I strive to be respectful and curious, to dress appropriately for each culture, and to make clients laugh.
“Laughter is universal to all people, and it is key to my work. Intercultural interactions provide constant opportunities to laugh when we say or do something a bit off,” she added. “But when both the client and I come with a generous spirit, the response is laughter rather than offense or anger.”
Refining her skillset
Katia is comfortable being uncomfortable, which she credits to those formative mission experiences that empowered her to become a peer mediator in elementary school and then the first white student on the Maple Grove Senior High School Diversity Council.
She embraced new opportunities at Augsburg—traveling abroad and enrolling in the Bonner Leaders Program, now the LEAD Fellows Program. Her brother, Luke, joined Katia in the service-based, work-study experience that empowers undergraduates to integrate civic engagement and leadership development into their studies. Katia said the experience honed her ability to adapt, problem-solve, and relate to others.
Every year, more than 70 courses at Augsburg include an embedded service-learning component. Students average 25 hours per semester in service-learning experience directly connected to course objectives and learning goals. Elaine Eschenbacher ’18 MAL, director for Augsburg’s Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship, said the Iversons’ experiences reflect the transferable skills and culturally relevant outcomes the program is designed to inspire.
“Our LEAD Fellows are engaged in long-term, in-depth community-based work, and these opportunities are funded, which opens the door for many students who are often unable to engage in service learning because they need to pay the bills,” said Eschenbacher, who guides the 35-40 fellows each year. “Community partners are confident in our students, and some have empowered undergraduates to develop programs like an eight-week nutrition education class for Somali mothers. This is real, impactful work.”
Progress emerges from collaboration
At Augsburg, the two eldest Iverson siblings shared a focus on those in need but it is a bond with younger sister, Natalie Iverson, that more recently has emerged. Natalie is a secondary ESL teacher at Hmong College Preparatory Academy, a K-12 charter school in St. Paul. As it turns out, several of Natalie’s students are from families Katia serves as a case manager.
“It makes me realize how powerful it would be if all systems were in communication, where a teacher could talk to a family’s caseworker and vice versa. I update Katia about a student, and she communicates it with those families, making the families feel seen, welcomed, and supported,” said Natalie, who works with students 11-20 years old. “I can offer her my advice as an educator when she’s got families struggling with school, and she can offer me perspective when I am lesson planning.”
Earlier this year, for example, Natalie mentioned to Katia that she was teaching English vocabulary about household problems families might need to communicate to their landlord. Katia offered Hmong, Karen, and Thai language resources related to tenants’ rights, then followed with an age-appropriate presentation she modified from one designed for parents.
The sisters maintain that immigrants are the greatest gift our society never knew it needed, and that we should lean into their stories and customs, rather than fear the unfamiliar. Katia urges people to do what they can, from welcoming a new family to the neighborhood, teaching English, writing elected officials, or sponsoring a refugee family through church. The possibilities are endless, Katia said, and there is a way for everyone to welcome others to our nation and set them up to become successful citizens.
It’s not work; it’s a calling
Has this work changed Katia? Yes.
“Although her life is busy, and she is always moving, there are so many still moments of intimate spirituality in her work,” Natalie said of her sister. “Her work allows her to see people in all stages of their lives, both in a literal sense, and in a vulnerable, human sense. And I don’t think anyone can stay the same because of that.”
[Top Image]: Katia Iverson ’12 encourages a new arrival from a refugee family as he practices his English.