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Katherine Grandstrand, Forum News Service, Published January 11 2014

ND newcomer helps others assimilate

DICKINSON, N.D. – In recent years, North Dakota has been painted as a beacon of hope and a welcome anomaly in a country facing recession.

Thousands have been drawn to the state in search of a better life, but moving is easier said than done, whether it’s moving to a new state or a new country.

In an effort to help newcomers navigate Dickinson professionally and socially, Emmanuel Ezeh, a newcomer himself, began the Afro Bakken Community Organization.

Established with the idea of helping people from war-torn countries navigate the local authority system, it’s a group anyone can join, regardless of nationality, race or creed.

“There’s a lot of people who are actually homeless and didn’t know where to go or what kind of assistance they can get,” Ezeh said. “There’s an informational gap. I met up with a couple of friends and we decided to fill that gap – create an organization where people could come for information, guidance counseling, thinks like that.”

The name Afro Bakken was chosen to encourage people from war-torn countries, Ezeh said.

“There are some white people that are members,” he said. “We have Japanese members, Puerto Ricans. It’s basically open to all.”

Ezeh was born in Nigeria but grew up and attended college in Los Angeles. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s in public administration. He left California about six months ago to escape the recession and began working in the oilfield in the Williston area before moving to Dickinson.

“It got too cold for me. I had to look for something indoors,” said Ezeh, who has been working at Menards, which is preparing for its opening this winter.

Some of Ezeh’s friends who were already in North Dakota began encouraging him to move here.

“I like the area, I like the environment,” Ezeh said. “From the big city, it’s kind of crazy out there. I needed somewhere a bit slower now. It’s just fine for me.”

North Dakota is also safer than Los Angeles.

“Here, you can take a walk at night if you want to,” Ezeh said. “In L.A., everyone is living in jail. You have to lock your door and then have an iron gate in front of it.

“It’s a relaxed environment and, most importantly, people are welcoming.”

Dickinson State University students had previously been the main source of immigrants to Dickinson, City Administrator Shawn Kessel said when introducing Ezeh to the Dickinson City Commission on Monday.

“Now it’s happening outside of that institution, and there’s been other communities that have dealt with ethnic diversity and ethnic growth, and maybe not in the best way. … Our goal is to try to do things better and be as proactive as possible.”

Cultural organizations like Afro Bakken are one way to be proactive, Commissioner Gene Jackson said.

“It’s apparent that we do have more diversity than we have had in the past,” Jackson said. “I think you’re to be commended for being proactive.”

Eventually, Afro Bakken will be his main endeavor, Ezeh said.

About 30 people are involved in the organization right now, and Ezeh is looking for a physical space for its headquarters.

“We need an office space where someone can say, ‘You know what, go to that building over there, you should be able to talk to them,’ “ Ezeh said. “When we don’t have an address, that doesn’t look good.”

So far he’s helped people find the Job Service North Dakota office and other placement agencies, as well as Stark County Social Services, sometimes counseling in the parking lots of Walmart or the Prairie Hills Mall. He has also brought issues to the attention of Kessel and Dickinson Police Chief Dustin Dassinger.

“With time, once we have a place, it’s going to be big,” Ezeh said. “We’re going to have people coming in with different ideas, with different backgrounds, from different cultures. It’s going to have something for everybody.”

The group will be a great way to connect businesses with job seekers, Commissioner Klayton Oltmanns said.

“I would say you have two strong things going for you,” Oltmanns said. “A pool of people eagerly looking for employment and bettering their lives, and you have a number of employers in this town that are eagerly looking for employees.”

Not only will the group be an introduction for newcomers into the economic world of southwest North Dakota, it will be a social point, too, Ezeh said.

“It’s going to be social, it’s going to be networking, it’s going to be for jobs – job placement – it’s going to be everything,” Ezeh said. “I’m intending on once a month, or twice a month, we’ll probably have a cooking – some kind of different types of foods from different cultures where people can stop in and taste. Just something to break the ice.

“It will be a forum where people can meet. Get to know your neighbor or get to know people in the city.”

The Afro Bakken Community Organization will reflect a trend in the community, Ezeh said.

“Not too many people are from here, anyway. Everybody’s from somewhere,” he said.

To get involved, contact Emmanuel Ezeh at ezeh@aol.com or (701) 334-6590.