Embracing color and culture

Dymanh Chhoun and family
Dymanh Chhoun poses with his wife, Kimhai, and daughter Prena. Chhoun participated in the ThreeSixty Journalism program, which led him to a career as a photographer for WCCO-TV. Kimhai recently became a citizen.

I’ve never been graceful at accepting change. If left to my own devices, I’d be writing with a manual typewriter, calling on a rotary phone or looking up facts in an encyclopedia. I am, however, welcoming one big change to life in Minnesota and in the Twin Cities.

That’s the increasingly diverse face of the community. When I got here in 1963, this place was so white, it’d make your teeth itch. It was the land of soda crackers and vanilla ice cream.

Not so any more. Today Minneapolis’ population is more than 35 percent people of color — including Africans, Vietnamese, Hmong and Latinos.

As a country, we’re divided over immigration — whether to open doors, close borders, establish quotas or offer sanctuary. I can understand why people are fearful and skeptical over the newcomers from different cultures, colors and classes.

Who are they? What do they believe? How will they affect our schools and institutions? Do they pose any threats?

We’ve been here before

More than a century ago, those newcomers were Swedish, Norwegian, Irish and German. They lived in enclaves (Swede Hollow in St. Paul was one). They weren’t wealthy, worked in menial jobs and voted with ballots printed in their native languages.

Well, I’ve had a chance to know some of the new young immigrants — up close and personal — and my life has been enriched. They were a part of ThreeSixty Journalism, a St. Paul-based program designed to find high school students of color and help them into college and, eventually, into newsrooms.

Ifrah Jimale and Dymanh Chhoun were, in effect, refugees — she from Somalia and he from Cambodia. They came to Minnesota hardly speaking a word of English. They both graduated from Roosevelt High School, overcame bullying and harassment from peers, earned college degrees, got jobs, got married and raised families.

In the process, they showed enough courage, conviction, commitment and compassion to put to me to shame. And that’s before they reached the age of 30. Ifrah now works as a tax examiner for the Internal Revenue Service in Atlanta and Dymanh is a photographer for WCCO-TV. They got these jobs one step at a time.

Finding their way

I remember Ifrah’s voicemail messages at 2:30 a.m., asking for help in understanding a history text or interpreting a Bible verse for a religion course. She was a student at the University of St. Thomas, where I was teaching journalism.

I recall walking with Dymanh across the University of Minnesota campus on a sunny, summer afternoon, declaring his intention to major in journalism. What a courageous move, I thought, for a Cambodian refugee with English as a second language. I was more than a little overwhelmed. Dymanh appeared undaunted and undeterred.

Recently Dymanh was talking about his experience as an immigrant in Minnesota with a couple of dozen guests at the Visitation Monastery in north Minneapolis. He said he had a lot of help from his teachers, mentors, parents, siblings and friends. And I know he’s returned the favors — to his parents at home, his buddies on the street and his colleagues in the newsroom.

In the WCCO newsroom, he’s known for an ever-present smile and his always-abundant energy. He can help a reporter get a sound bite, comfort a crime victim and set up a live shot in below-zero temperatures.

He told the Sisters and their friends he’s grateful to be an American citizen.

“I love this country,” he said. “Some see the problems. What I see are the promises. They have changed my life and I never forget that.”

He smiled and he paused. Then he told the group that tomorrow his wife, Kimhai, would officially become an American citizen. The room broke out in cheers.

Dave Nimmer has had a long career as a reporter, editor and professor. Now retired, he has no business card, but plenty to do. Send comments or questions to [email protected].