"I came into this country with my husband, two children, two bags, and a lot of hope for a better life," Executive Director of Project FINE, Fatima Said, said. She came to the United States as a refugee from Bosnia in 1993. Ethnic and political conflicts had begun which would lead her country into a brutal war and genocide. Because of her ethnicity, Said said, she and her family were thrown out of their home and fled the country to a refugee camp.
"Everything was taken away from me overnight: my house, my identity, my homeland, everything.
I was thrown out of my own home," Said said. "All that we worked for, we lost that night. But those are things you can buy, you can have and you can lose. What truly matters is relationships and family."
They were lucky. Said's younger brother spent seven months as a prisoner of war in a concentration camp. Two years later, in the Bosnian towns of Srebenica and Zepa, over 30,000 people were killed in two "ethnic cleansing" massacres.
Said's younger brother was freed and allowed to come to the U.S., where he cleared the way for Said, her husband, and their two children to come as well.
"First I was afraid to come, I was hoping the war would stop and we would go home. But we realized that the war was not stopping. My husband was more wise at that time; he knew that our hometown would never be free," Said said.
Still, the U.S. may as well have been another planet to Said at that point, as she had spent her whole life in a distant communist country. She was scared. "I didn't know what to expect," she said. "I was really afraid because I was coming to a new country, I didn't speak the language, I didn't have any money, we didn't know anyone here, and we had two children."
Said and her husband knew that they would have to start their lives over from scratch if they came to the U.S. "But my husband, brave and smart man, he said, 'We can do that. We have our lives; we can do that,'" Said glowed.
Said and her husband decided. They left the refugee camp and arrived at the Rochester airport in December of 1993. Said explained that she knew her brother was going to be there with her papers, but that she did not know anything else and certainly did not expect anyone else to be waiting for her.
As she told the story, Said's eyes reddened and she swallowed hard. "When we walked out from the plane, there were so many people. They had a welcome sign in my language, a bouquet of flowers, a basket of fruit. And I ask my brother, 'Who are those people?'"
Said's voice broke, but she went on. "He said, 'These are people who decided to help you and your family.' I couldn't believe it. My own people, in my own homeland, in my own house, chased me out, and these people didn't even know who I am, and they wanted to give me an opportunity for a new life. They wanted to give me friendship. They wanted to give me a hand.
"I was amazed by that, I will never forget that feeling, and will be grateful forever to them."
Said said she received incredible support from the community in Rochester as she began to find her way in the New World. An organization similar to Project FINE helped her and her family find a home, English classes, and daycare for their children and gave them information and resources on the thousands of details crucial to everyday life that were so foreign to them.
Project FINE extends a hand to immigrants
Now, Said's story has come full circle—as the director of Project FINE, she helps to welcome immigrants and refugees to America. The mission of the Winona county-wide organization is to provide "newcomers" with basic needs and services on arrival, then to help them navigate the difficulties of integrating into a society and find the resources they need, and finally to broadly foster integration and connection between newcomers and the local community.
Project FINE has a number of programs that address the needs of newcomers, including providing translators; connecting newcomers with resources and information on myriad issues like how to find childcare and where to look for work; providing informational sessions on banking, housing, health care, and American society; helping families pursue post-secondary education; offering youth programs for second-generation youth; providing technology literacy programs; and connecting immigrant gardeners with growing space.
Project FINE receives state award
Two thousand and twelve was a big year for Project FINE. The organization's programs served over 2,500 people over the course of the year. They received the 2012 Minnesota Nonprofit Award for Excellence from the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (MCN) last fall. They also have received the Charities Review Council's stamp of approval for nonprofit standards.
"We are business-oriented because if we did not have this," Said waved her arm at the shelf full of three-ring binders in her desk, "how do we prove what we are doing to the community?"
MCN judges lauded Project FINE's commitment to accountability, transparency, and observation of best practices as well as the broad network of partners Project FINE collaborates with for its programming. MCN judges said, "Project FINE demonstrates outstanding ability to build an inclusive community, something rare but wonderful to see."
"I feel like it is an award for the entire community, because everything we do is done in partnership with someone," Said said. She praised Project FINE's many partners, supporters, volunteers, and its board members and said that their contributions are absolutely fundamental to Project FINE's success. "This award is for the entire county," she said.
A history of overcoming challenges and facilitating success
Project FINE was founded in 1990. "There was a very broad group of people meeting and thinking about the influx of people, particularly Hmong families," said Karen Stettler, the first director of Project FINE. That group "recognized that there was a need to reach out and make some connections." That group wrote and won a grant which provided initial funding for a nonprofit which would help connect immigrants to resources and services as well as help share their cultural heritage with the broader community. But it took more than that.
"We started with nothing. I had a grant, a desk, and a phone," Stettler laughed.
Building relationships with immigrant families took time, Stettler said. Overcoming preconceived notions was a challenge, too. Immigrant families told her at the time that people would avoid them on the street and that police officers were "even more vigilant" of immigrants' behavior. She said there was also a "perception that these people were coming here to use our welfare system."
Kim Chau Ngo, a Vietnamese immigrant who also served as Project FINE director during the early years, said she was lucky not to be the subject of such negative feelings because her family owned a business and was able to provide for themselves. "We had jobs, so I think we were looked upon very differently," she said. However, she added, "Without Project FINE, people would have suffered, and my own family would not have had the knowledge to start our business.
"We tried to help families become economically sufficient and sustaining so they could actually live comfortably and be respected by community members," Ngo said. To that end, Project FINE provided "a hub of services for people," but it also "brought people and families together on a very personal basis," she said.
That empowerment is still at the core of Project FINE's programming. "Moving from town to town can be a challenge, moving from state to state a bigger challenge," said Said. "Just imagine those refugees and immigrants, people like myself, moving from continent to continent, to a different culture, a different language, a different society. No matter how much you want and all your desire for building a new life, you need resources, you need information, you need support to do that."
Said said that there are three stages of immigrant life: first, survival; second, building a base of knowledge; and third, creating stability and success. Stettler said she was moved by seeing that progression first hand. In particular she mentioned the daughter of an immigrant family she worked with in 1990 who grew up to become a "very community-focused, socially-active person," volunteering in Thailand, working in Human Services, and now attending graduate school.
All of that made being director of Project FINE more than just a nine-to-five for Stettler, Ngo, and Said. "It was great seeing hard work actually produce some benefits," said Ngo. "It made me feel like the job was not just a job that was very fulfilling, but that we were creating change, that we were changing people's lives for the better."
"Project FINE's mission is more than just a professional mission for me," Said said. "It is my life mission. I truly enjoy being able to assist newcomers as I understand how hard it is. I have been there, and I know how wonderful it is when you have a welcoming and inclusive community that is willing to share information and resources with you."
"I love this mission, because it is so beautiful to give, and so hard to receive." she said."Always pray to be in a situation to give and never to need. It wasn't easy to take help, but that teaches you to appreciate what you have and value and look for ways to give back as much as you can."
Project FINE is funded almost entirely by donations and grants. Interpretation is the only service for which there is a fee.