Grantees & Grantmaking, Strategic Approach | June 13, 2023

Immigrants and Refugees Are Central to Our New Grantmaking Approach Advancing Justice

By John Fetzer     Program Officer, NWAF

Let’s consider how communities can be more just and equitable for immigrants and refugees.

The Foundation’s funding approach focuses on advancing social, racial, and economic justice in communities that face systemic barriers. These communities include immigrants and refugees—people born abroad who now live in the US.

They have left behind their homelands and extended families to re-establish a life in our country. This transition is enormously difficult. When looking for jobs, they are often steered toward the backbreaking work of our food industry within slaughterhouses, in farm fields, and in the kitchens of restaurants.

Those with children often must enroll their kids in schools not fully set up to support teaching students from different cultures who may have language barriers. And nativist sentiments paint immigrants as “invaders” or burdens to society, even though the US economy would crumble without immigrants.

We support immigrant- and refugee-led organizations that are working to dismantle these obstacles. Just recently, our board of directors and staff spent several days in the Fargo, ND – Moorhead, MN area as part of our annual board learning retreat. There, we met with two grantees: the Immigrant Development Center (IDC) and the Afro American Development Association (AADA). I’m in awe of the courage and strength these organizations have demonstrated since their founding, and especially over the past three years since the pandemic began.

Supporting business ownership is one way IDC helps immigrants and refugees reclaim power over their livelihoods and lives.

Immigrant Development Center helps recent immigrants start their own businesses through training, individual support, loans, and space at its International Market Plaza in downtown Fargo. It wants to help immigrant communities achieve economic self-sufficiency on their own terms rather than by working food industry jobs until their bodies break down.

Northwest Area Foundation board and staff experiencing the grocery stores, boutiques, and restaurants of the International Market Plaza in Fargo, ND, during the 2023 board learning retreat.

At International Market Plaza, we shopped at a clothing boutique, visited a grocery store packed with ingredients from all over the world, and ate delicious food from two restaurants. International Market Plaza is a place of joy and hope—where shop owners chase their dreams by running stores they are passionate about, all while getting support from IDC.

But the plaza recently became the target of hate.

In September, a white supremacist group vandalized artwork on the outside of the building. It was an act meant to strike fear into the hearts of immigrants in the community. Fowzia Adde, IDC’s remarkable leader, used this moment to rally people. Dozens of volunteers helped take down the vandalized artwork and repair the building while a local immigrant-owned restaurant served food.

In the wake of a hateful act, a renewed sense of community emerged. Today, all signs of the physical damage are gone and the businesses all reopened, but the fear of future attacks still weighs on people’s minds. The community has come together to provide the needed healing, a slow but necessary process and one that’s vital to achieve justice.

Fowzia Adde, leader of the IDC, Fargo, ND – Moorhead, MN.

Counteracting misleading and harmful narratives, AADA crafted positive narratives based on truth—and more.

Our board and staff also spent time with the Afro American Development Association, which supports the empowerment of immigrant and refugee families and communities. Through AADA’s outreach efforts, it co-founded a growing coalition of refugee-serving organizations called the Ethnic Self-Help Alliance for Refugee Assistance (ESHARA).

We met with more than a dozen leaders from the ESHARA coalition to listen to their stories and better understand the context of their work. To just sit and learn from them was a gift.

Hukun Dabar, executive director of AADA, Fargo, ND.

ESHARA started as a workforce initiative, serving as a pathway between immigrant communities and local employers. It expanded to become a broader resource hub for immigrants, helping them navigate health care, social services, and leadership opportunities.

When the pandemic struck, some xenophobic narratives in Fargo-Moorhead blamed the immigrant community for the virus’s early spread. AADA’s executive director Hukun Dabar forcefully spoke out, countering—truthfully—that systemic disparities in housing, jobs, health care, and transportation placed immigrants and refugees at a much higher risk for exposure.

But AADA and the rest of the ESHARA coalition backed up their words with action. They became a hub for response efforts in the immigrant community by relaying important vaccine information to the community, coordinating resources, and working with public health agencies to keep people safe.

Someone reminded us that “united we are rock; divided we are sand.” That level of solidarity and commitment to each other is how we get closer to justice.

And, they’re not stopping there. I was especially struck by the strength of ESHARA as a coalition. They share resources, talk frequently, and help each other often. Our board members and I saw firsthand the energy and passion of coalition leaders when they talked to us about how they show up for each other, whether to help translate when someone from another group needs help responding to a misunderstanding with an employer or to join forces to ensure their children have their needs met at school.

During our conversation with the group, someone reminded us that “united we are rock; divided we are sand.” That level of solidarity and commitment to each other is how we get closer to justice.

Northwest Area Foundation board and staff join representatives from IDC, AADA, and ESHARA during the 2023 board learning retreat in the Fargo, ND – Moorhead, MN area.

Justice is about supporting the realization of these grantees’ vision.

The work these organizations do is absolutely essential. It is not easy. The systems they encounter on a daily basis still make it very difficult for immigrants and refugees to build a new life here. Xenophobia and hate lurk around every corner.

IDC, AADA, and ESHARA shouldn’t have to demonstrate the remarkable courage and resilience we’ve witnessed. They shouldn’t have to work so hard merely to stay safe. I want their communities to be safe, included, and whole, their cultures thriving and celebrated.

I’m looking for partners in the important and just work of making this happen. Will you join me?

If you’re funding or engaging in this work, we invite you to contact John:



John Fetzer

Program Officer, Northwest Area Foundation

Photo top: Hamida Dakane, North Dakota state representative.