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A Cold Shoulder or Welcoming Arms for Children in Danger

July 30, 2014 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow

Minnesota political leaders and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are pondering what the state’s response should be to the children of Central America gathering at the U.S.-Mexican border seeking refuge from gangs, drug wars and poverty back home.

Minnesota awareness of the children’s plight was raised within the past week when Congressman Keith Ellison said Minnesota should come to their aid. The Star Tribune article about a community meeting in Minneapolis quoted Ellison as saying, “We have capacity to help here and we should.”

A later report from the Associated Press noted 173 unaccompanied immigrant children have been placed with Minnesota family members since the beginning of this year.

Minnesotans can gain guidance in meeting the challenge by reviewing past state history.

Perhaps least known of crisis responses came in 1942 when Russian cities were under siege in World War II and farms and crops were destroyed. Western Minnesota farmers answered the call, providing seeds for Russian farmers to plant 1943 crops.

Don Loeslie, a former National Association of Wheat Growers president from Warren, said little information is available on the success of that effort. Our merchant marine fleet also had difficultly reaching Soviet Union ports with aid during the war.

Much more information is available, however, when thousands of Minnesota farmers responded to the January 1946 call for “Mercy Wheat” shipments to aid starving people in Europe and Asia at the end of the war.

Several thousand western Minnesota farmers and townspeople assembled at Climax, near Grand Forks-East Grand Forks, to witness the launching of the wheat relief effort. Former New York City mayor F.H. LaGuardia, serving as director general of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), was on hand to watch the unloading of trucks and loading of rail cars.

The November 1946 issue of Cooperative Digest magazine noted that M.W. Thatcher, a long-time and charismatic leader of what was then called Farmers Union Grain Terminal Association GTA), was also present after pledging 15 million bushels to the humanitarian relief effort. CBS provided national radio coverage of the event at Climax, and the April 21 edition of the New York Times noted the spring wheat crop represented the only sizeable stockpile of grain in the world at the end of the war.

LaGuardia later flew from Fargo to Duluth to watch the loading of ships at the Duluth-Superior harbor as “Mercy Wheat” started on its way to Europe and China. In all, U.S. farmers provided 86 million bushels of wheat to the program in the following year. UN officials credited the Minnesota-North Dakota-South Dakota-Montana response through GTA with saving 15 million lives from starvation.

“I just missed out on that,” recalls Tom Dziengel, a 95-year-old former farmer at Strandquist. He moved from the Sauk Center area to become a wheat farmer in northwest Minnesota in 1947.

His neighbors all talked of delivering “Mercy Wheat” to the relief effort, he said.

Thatcher helped LaGuardia and the USDA develop a certificate program that worked like a reverse futures market contract. The spring wheat farmers could deliver their crops straight from the fields without crashing the grain markets and redeem their certificates for payment stretched out over the following year. GTA later became Harvest States after merging with other grain co-ops. It is now part of Inver Grove Heights-based CHS Inc., the nation’s largest farmer-owned cooperative after merging with Cenex – the former Farmers Union Central Exchange.

Both sides of CHS were initial members giving rise to CARE, said Lani Jordan, spokeswoman for the co-op. Merging partners in Land O’Lakes, based at Arden Hills, were also originators of CARE that formed as the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe and later reorganized as the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere.

Today, CARE assists with economic development and poverty programs affecting 97 million people around the globe. Its initial “CARE Packages” of privately provided relief food became especially helpful in feeding efforts through the Berlin airlift when the Soviet Union – our former WWII ally – had Berlin – our former enemy – under siege.

Minnesota farmers with long memories can look at the children from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala seeking refuge in America today and say they’ve been there, done that.

They aren’t alone. Urban and rural people alike have engaged in relief and training efforts abroad through the American Refugee Committee (ARC) based in Minneapolis. It now has programs aiding people in parts of Africa, Asia and in the Western Hemisphere impacted by wars, weather and earthquakes.

It is but one of 86 nonprofit, non-government and faith-based organizations involved with global and humanitarian relief and development that are based or operating in Minnesota. They connect, coordinate and share information through the Minnesota International NGO Network.

We have, as Minneapolis Congressman Ellison said, the capacity. We also have a tradition for responding to needs, such as the children gathering at our borders. It is only a matter of using resident talents to figure how best to respond.

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  • Ruby Bollinger says:

    August 4, 2014 at 11:00 am

    I am very much in favor of doing whatever we may be able to do. We should be calling these children refuges and we couldn’t send them away. Where is our humanity? My problem is that I am 80years old, retired and have no extra money to donate, so cannot be a lot of help.