GRAND FORKS — Alakiir Nhial, a certified nursing assistant in a Fargo-area nursing home, said she is one of many New Americans working in North Dakota long-term care facilities who has formed friendships and connections with her residents as a woman, a mother and a human being.
That's why North Dakota Long Term Care Association President Shelly Peterson's recent comments erroneously suggesting that New Americans are causing the spread of COVID-19 in North Dakota nursing homes were so hurtful, Nhial said.
"I was panicked when I read it," Nhial said. "I have a middle-schooler, and, when I read it, I was emotional, because I was scared."
Nhial was one person to speak out at a town hall hosted by the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition Tuesday night, June 30. The town hall was called in response to Peterson's comments, which she made in a May 19 interview with the Fargo-based TV station Valley News Live, when she wrongly suggested that the spread of COVID-19 in North Dakota nursing homes could be attributed to New Americans and their large households. The comments were quickly condemned by New Americans and other advocacy groups.
Nyamal Dei, a NDHRC board member and a former refugee from South Sudan, was one such person who criticized the comments after the interview aired.
"There is a better day tomorrow, because I came to this great country today. But that doesn't mean that I have to feel like I'm being mistreated at some point," Dei said at the Tuesday town hall. "Just because I came into your community doesn't mean that you have to mistreat me. It doesn't mean that you have to call me names."
The North Dakota Human Rights Coalition issued a statement on the incident on May 22, emphasizing the fact that there is no evidence to support Peterson's comments. According to the statement, NDHRC board members reached Peterson after the interview and had a "productive conversation," in which Peterson acknowledged the damage that misinformation can have on minority communities.
Peterson has since apologized for her comments. She was invited to speak at the town hall Tuesday night, where she told listeners her intent was to acknowledge and apologize for her comments as well as to listen to those she hurt and to continue learning from her mistakes. She added that, while she submitted an apology and statement to Valley News Live, the news station has not run the apology, nor have it retracted the story in which her comments initially ran.
NDHRC board member Andrea Denault said she hoped the town hall would provide an opportunity to create an "allyship."
"We want to make it very clear that what Shelly is doing right now is setting an example for other people who make these mistakes, because a lot of people make these mistakes," she said. "What's more important is owning up to them, not making excuses, and I have yet to hear you make excuses, Shelly, but only take complete ownership of what you said and do everything that you can to try to correct it."
The incident in May came at a time of elevated racial tension in the United States. NDHRC pointed toward a recent incident in Grand Forks, where multiple people stood on a rooftop shouting a white supremacist phrase in April, as evidence that North Dakota is not free of the racial tension electrifying the rest of the country.
Though there is no evidence that New Americans or any one race of people are more likely to spread COVID-19, the actual relationship between race and ethnicity and coronavirus in North Dakota remains hazy.
Though North Dakota tracks the race and ethnicity of COVID-19 patients and deaths, it is the only state in the U.S. that does not report that data. The governor's office did not respond to a Herald request for this data, and a spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding why the data has not been released.
Though the data has not been made public, Gov. Doug Burgum did reference those numbers in a May press conference, stating that Black and Asian North Dakotans are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Burgum said on May 20 that 38% of people who tested positive for COVID-19 self-identified as people of color, despite comprising of a much smaller fraction of the state's overall population. He added that 16% of respondents declined to give their race.
In the press conference, Burgum said that Black and Indigenous North Dakotans are significantly more likely to be tested for COVID-19 than their white neighbors. He attributed this to the fact that Black and Indigenous people make up a larger portion of the state's essential workforce. Native Americans test positive for COVID-19 at a roughly proportional rate compared to their overall population, Burgum said.
NDHRC board member Barry Nelson added that, while people of color tend to make up a disproportionate amount of the state's essential workforce, people of color in North Dakota are also more likely to be working multiple jobs and more likely to work jobs that don't have family leave or health care, meaning that missed work would result in a lost wages.
Denault said that this finding is in line with what has been seen across the rest of the U.S. during the pandemic.
The right thing for the state to do is to release that data, Nelson said, but he also urged people not to make any incorrect assumptions about groups most heavily hit by the virus.
"Our position would be that the data should be released and should be looked at and examined and not just accepted at face value, but to really look deeper into what that represents," he said.
Shirley Dykshoorn, the vice president of Senior and Humanitarian Services at Lutheran Social Services who helped oversee refugee resettlement in eastern North Dakota before her retirement earlier this week, said that when misinformation is spread about New Americans in news articles, public comments or Tweets by President Donald Trump, the cause and effect on local New Americans is often swift and clear.
Dykshoorn recalled a recent rash of prejudiced acts against New Americans in the area immediately following one such TV news report. She said incidents ranged in severity from New Americans being shouted at from cars, to being the victims of more serious crimes.
"It doesn't take a lot for people to react negatively that are ill-informed, or have implicit bias or prejudice, to do something that is hurtful to another individual," she said.
Dei implored listeners of the town hall not only to treat New Americans with kindness and respect, but to stand with them and call out people who mistreat them.
"I will say to my fellow Americans is speak up for your neighbor," she said. "If you see something that is unusual or doesn't feel right, you have a right as a community to speak up and say, 'No. We do not accept that kind of hate, or that kind of prejudice in our communities.'"
Reporter Brad E. Schlossman contributed to this article.