Refugees learn winter survival skills

Published 4:30 pm Saturday, December 6, 2014

ST. PAUL — Ehsher Mu has lived his entire 24 years in a Thai refugee camp. Last month, he boarded a plane to Minnesota, wearing flip-flops suited for the only climate he’s ever known.

A day later, he remained sockless in frigid, toe-curling temperatures while attending a winter-survival class in his new home of St. Paul. Resettlement workers offered him snow boots and cold-weather tips, but Mu remained anxious about getting through the first real winter of his life.

“I’m worried,” he said in his native Karen language. “I never saw this kind of weather.”

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Every year, the United States welcomes tens of thousands of refugees from all over the world — about 2,000 come to Minnesota. Many of those refugees are from warm climates and seeking a better life in one the coldest states in the country.

With a ruthless winter already under way, the latest arrivals in Minnesota are learning to survive the arctic sting, Lessons on how to bundle up and use a thermostat are part of a cultural orientation offered by the International Institute of Minnesota, which helps resettle refugees.

The institute’s Liz Ross, who leads the training, clicks through a slideshow with pictures of mittens and boots.

Adapting to winter will be a huge part of their integration in a state that prides itself on bad-weather hardiness.

But the adjustment can be tough, said Ghay Hu, a case manager who arrived as a Karen refugee in 2009.

“The first year will be difficult,” Hu said. “To go to school, to find a job, you have to struggle in the snow. The kids are happy, but for the adults, it’s really hard.”

The newcomers trade smiles, mentioning the runny noses, numb fingers and headaches they’ve experienced in their new climate.

With that cautionary tale, Ross and Hu take the newcomers outside, onto a large frozen patch in the center’s parking lot. They learn an essential Minnesota skill: how to tread cautiously across the ice.

Ross tells them to look down while walking slowly and carefully. She warns them not to break their fall with their hands, which can cause them to injure their wrists or arms. Instead, she advises them, to land on their bottoms.

In howling wind, the newcomers gingerly shuffle across the ice, many of them wearing donated snow boots and winter coats they received from the center. The ice is treacherous.

But even though it’s a Minnesota pastime to complain about the weather, no one grumbles.

Kyig Nywe Stu grins while sporting his new prized possession, a gently worn wool coat.

“I’m happy,” he said, “and cold.”