Video: Minn. town benefits from immigrants

NBC News with Brian Williams
By Kevin Tibbles Correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/22/2006 11:40:43 AM ET 2006-12-22T16:40:43

At this year's Christmas pageant, Latino Lutherans invite local Catholics to join in — just another sign of how Willmar's varied cultures strive to include one another.

"Why is it working?" asks resident Idalia Leuze. "Because we have actually come together and have decided that this has to work."

Like most American towns, this one has its general store and coffee shop, but nestled in between, the new face of Willmar: a Somali grocery, a Latino clothing store, a Mexican bakery.

Mayor Les Heitke says there are 37 different ethnicities in his city of just 18,000 — 20 percent of the population.

"On Main Street you'll see all the northern Europeans, but you're also going to see East Africans, Somalis, Sudanese, people from Bosnia, people from the Pacific Rim, and they're in and amongst our community," he says.

Many make a middle class wage at one of the two Jennie-O turkey plants in town, and pump as much as $80 million back into the local economy.

"They're finding out it's a good place to be," says Gregg Aamot, an Associated Press reporter and author of 'The New Minnesotans: Stories of Immigrants and Refugees.'

Aamot's own family came from Scandinavia a century ago. He says Willmar is welcoming, but wary of those here illegally.

"There are some folks who understand that illegal immigrants are here because they're looking for a better life, and they accept that," he says. "But there is a fair chunk of the population, as well, that wants to see immigration fair and rational, and they want everyone to be on a level playing field."

Local schools have had to adapt — most employ interpreters to help the nearly one-third of students who come from immigrant families.

"The biggest problem is the communication, the language barrier, not being able to communicate your needs or your wants, anything, right away to people," says Leuze, who works as the executive director of the West Central Integration Collaborative Consortium of School Districts. "But we've done a wonderful job at that."  

"I started in second grade and I had never seen a white person before, so it was a little different," says Willmar High School senior Abdi Awle.

Runners of Somali heritage catapulted the cross country team to win the state championship two years in a row.

"These are Willmar kids, that's what they are, they're Willmar kids," says coach Jerry Popp.

"It's an All-American city, it just looks different than the All-American city of 1950," says Aamot. "It's a good thing."

A helping hand in the heart of middle America to newcomers from the four corners of the world.

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