By C.S. Hagen
FARGO – Under the shadow of KVLY’s towering signboard approximately 200 protestors rallied Sunday demanding a change of what they call the Fargo television station’s recent fear-mongering agenda.
It was the fourteenth of such broadcasts in as many months.
“These guys are spreading lies and creating animosity between the mainstream and ethnic communities,” Hukun Abdullahi, organizer of the rally said.
Abdullahi, originally from Kenya, arrived in Fargo in 2014. He referred to a Valley News Live May 16, 2016 report entitled Could Kindness be Bad for Your Health, a controversial broadcast stating 22 percent of Fargo refugees are health risks and carry latent tuberculosis.
“What Valley News did is not acceptable,” Abdullahi said in his welcome speech. “They violated their basic journalism principles and any journalistic integrity – if they had any left – to go one step beyond to classify us as a vector for disease.
“We are not mosquitos. We are survivors with families and children, who fled violence, persecutions, wars, and death.”
The broadcast wasn’t the first time the local television station turned to fear-mongering tactics to boost its ratings, said Hamida Dakane, a co-organizer of the protest. In December 2015 the television station reported the story of an assault case in Mapleton when a Somali man named Abdulrahman Ali allegedly attempted to rape a gas station attendant in the bathroom while repeating the words “Allah Akbar,” or God is great. The television station later changed the story reporting that officers heard Ali say “Allah Akbar” before his arrest, according to a column written by Mike McFeely on Inforum.
“We condemn the Valley News attempt to target us, and their attempt of fear-mongering by framing us,” Abdullahi said. “We are no Trojan horses bringing disease or are a ticking bomb.
“We are here… to stand against a bully, and clarify that we are not the threat. News outlets like Valley News are the ones that are a threat to any community like ours, who would take advantage of their user base to spread false rumor, accusations, and promote xenophobia.
“We are better than this.”
The protest, which was peaceful, lasted from noon until 2 p.m., and brought nationalities from around the world. A verifiable melting pot of African-Americans, Caucasians, Asians, Middle Easterners, and Latin, joined together to demand fairness and change from the television station.
“This is about discrimination,” Harka Subba, an immigrant from Bhutan, said. “People have been here for two centuries before, but in the end we are all immigrants.” As president of the Bhutanese Community in Fargo, Subba said that until the television station’s broadcast he felt accepted by the Fargo community. Work has not been typically difficult to find. Many in the Bhutanese community have become entrepreneurs, and have created jobs, paid their taxes. Life in Fargo was good when compared to the Nepalese refugee camp in which he stayed in for eight years.
“I’m here to stand up for the rights of immigrants and for the truth,” Grace Mbuthia said. She is originally from Kenya. “What they’re doing separates people.”
“The way the news is working, we need to be sure that they try to get it right,” Fargo Deputy Mayor Mike Williams said. Amidst much cheering, Williams disputed the television station’s report calling it slanted. “This sensationalistic report that tuberculosis is out of the normal for our area just isn’t so.
“North Dakota has one of the lowest rates of tuberculosis in the country, just over 1 percent of 100,000 population actually has active tuberculosis… but our health officials in Fargo, in Grand Forks, and in the state say it’s not an item that is not treatable.”
“Our community has become more diverse since 1997,” Williams said. “And it’s made our city better. Our food is better, our culture, our art. We were losing our population until 2000, but now we are a stronger city and state because of our immigration policies.”
Morehead Mayor Del Rae Williams denounced Valley City News reporting tactics.
“This is something we do not want happening in our community,” Williams said. “For a mayor it is not the easiest thing to stand up against a media group. Let me tell you that when it needs to be said, it needs to be said. Our community cannot be at risk by journalism that is false.
“We wont stand for this kind of abuse in our community. We will stand for things that are true.”
Barry Nelson of the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition also stepped up to the bullhorn. Surrounded by minorities from around the world, he said the television station’s agenda was sparking fear in the community.
“I am disturbed by the fact that some in our community seem to have an agenda,” Nelson said. “I am very disturbed and angry that some members in my community are being targeted, targeted with misrepresentation, fear, and hate.”
In addition to elected leaders, two former employees of the station joined the protest. John Rodenbiker, who is running for the Fargo School Board said he was embarrassed of his former employer.
“I’m out here standing in solidarity with all of our residents of Fargo and standing against ignorance and hatred,” Rodenbiker said. “I’m ashamed that news media in our community would do the kind of reporting that we’ve seen over the past weeks and months.”
Another former employee, Paul Leintz, expressed frustration with the station.
“I used to walk the halls of Valley News Live,” Leintz said. “I was an employee here and the change I’ve seen over the years is the reason why I’m not working here anymore. Look at our numbers. And look at the numbers against us.” He pointed to a lone counter protester across the street.
“You guys make me proud to be an American with all of you.”
Another former employee of KVLY, who wished to remain anonymous expressed some fear at being spotted at the protest, but admitted they “had to be there.”
Protestors cheered after the speeches were given, and then they prepared to march. Across the street under the shade of a young maple tree, the lone supporter of the television station’s broadcast sat. He wore a blue “Trump, Make America Great Again” t-shirt.
“I believe Valley News was correct with the exception of active and passive tuberculosis,” Deven Styczunski, Fargo resident and a grain inspector said. “Their data is solid. These people should be protesting the Center for Disease Control and the North Dakota Department of Health.”
He said many others in Fargo were debating the issue in online platforms, but were too busy to join his side of the street during the protest. “I have no problem with people coming to the USA, but they’re claiming xenophobia, and I don’t think this is what it was about,” Styczunski said.
A protestor handed Styczunski bottled water. He refused. “I’ll just stay on this side of the street by myself,” he said.
In a Valley News Live Facebook post pertaining to Sunday’s rally in the comment section, Adam Hewson, a self-declared white nationalist said, “We in Fargo never got asked to be a resettlement community. We don’t want them, the diseases, drugs, and crime they bring into our town. If they don’t like it Somalia is only a plane ticket away.”
His initial post received 206 replies within 24 hours, but no “like” buttons were pushed.
“Okay, looking at everything, I love how the race card gets thrown so easily,” another comment on Facebook from Fargo resident Dan Gunderson said. “Some refugees come here and actually take advantage of what we give them. Those types of refugees are a small, small percentage. Then you have the rest that sit on their asses and collect the government’s money and walk around like everyone else owes them something.”
When asked for a comment on Valley News Live recent coverage of immigration issues, Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota CEO and President Jessica Thomasson said their focus is on assisting the families they serve. A total of 85,000 immigrants will be relocated in the USA in 2015, Thomasson said, of which approximately 506 will arrive in North Dakota. From that number 70 to 80 percent, mostly from Bhutan, Iraq, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, will find new homes through Lutheran Social Services in the Fargo-Morehead area.
All immigrants, Thomasson said, are carefully screened before they board the airplane to the United States.
“All refugees who come to the USA are screened prior to leaving, and it is overseen by the Center for Disease Control and the State Department working with a panel of physicians. If they identify anything that needs to be treated, they deal with that overseas. They don’t have the right to come to the US until it is taken care of.”
Active tuberculosis is a red flag for health officials, but more than one third of the world’s population has latent tuberculosis, Thomasson said, a disease that is not transmittable.
Fauzia Haider, a doctor of medicine and surgery from Khyber Medical College in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1987, said even those who were immunized against tuberculosis as a child can test positive for latent tuberculosis.
“And it is fully treatable,” Haider said. “Even latent tuberculosis is treated by health officials. This disease does not discriminate or limit itself to one group of people. It’s not only refugees that carry it. To contract it, however, you must have prolonged exposure to it. It’s not like influenza where someone sneezes and you catch it.”
Bad hygiene, lowered immunity, and overcrowding – the conditions in a refugee camp – are ideal breeding places for the disease to manifest itself, not in cities like Fargo, Morehead, Grand Forks, or Bismarck.
Valley Community Health Center Dr. Marsha Lange wrote to the Grand Forks Herald on May 20, 2016, urging readers not to worry about catching tuberculosis from recent immigrants and refugees. Being in charge of ordering tuberculosis tests at the Valley Community Health Center in Grand Forks, Lange wrote that no refugees so far have tested positive, and that local residents should be more worried about the ever-growing problem of obesity from delicious food newly-arrived immigrants are cooking across North Dakota, rather than tuberculosis.
Health Officer at Fargo Cass Public Health Dr. John Baird said cases of tuberculosis have arisen in Fargo during the past few years, both from refugees and long time residents alike, but that there is no reason for worry.
“From every standpoint I look I do not see that refugees are a risk to our community,” Baird said. “The individuals that come here as refugees come from difficult situations. They’re screened when they leave, and checked when they arrive.”
Latent tuberculosis has a ten percent chance during a person’s lifetime of ever becoming active, Baird said. “And there are antibiotics that can treat it,” Baird said.
Long time Fargo resident and owner of the Discount Market, Sharif Mohamed, spent 12 years in a refugee camp in Kenya before he was able to bring his family to Fargo. “I was thinking to myself last night about the name United States,” he said. “United States. Dividing people is not the right way.
“We are scared now because they deliver the wrong message,” Mohamed said.
The protestors, many wearing surgical masks, marched one block south on University Drive waiving banners that read “Stop labeling,” “My wife was killed by terrorism,” “I was a refugee,” and “Tell the truth.”
As director of the Afro-American Development Association, Abdullahi led the marchers speaking into a megaphone.
“Valley News,” Abdullahi said.
“We are one,” the protestors answered.
“Valley News,” Abdullahi said.
“Stop the hate.”
A taxi driver halted in a nearby parking lot to give the protestors two thumbs up. More than a few passersby honked while the protestors marched. One unknown driver of a SUV pulled out of the television station’s parking lot, rolled down the window, and gave the protestors the middle finger symbol, according to onlookers.
Haider said her family has felt welcomed by the Fargo-Morehead community since her arrival 20 years ago. Her goal as a leader and frequent speaker for the Center for Interfaith Project is to bridge the gap between immigrants, new and old.
“We deal with misconceptions,” Haider said. “And try to educate people, create harmony and learn to live together. It doesn’t help that the media is fanning the flames that separate us.”
In a letter delivered to KVLY Fargo, the Afro-American Development Association, the Somali Community Development of North Dakota, the Bhutanese Community of Fargo, and the Buddhist Community of North Dakota demanded an official apology and the immediate resignations of Valley News Live Reporter Bradford Arick, News Director Ike Walker, and Jim Wareham, the television station’s general manager.
“We will need additional encouragement, a sense of acceptance, and motivation so that we and our families can actually feel that we belong here,” the letter stated. “After all, we believe this is the only nation and the only home known to us, where we can be safe, be heard, and be a productive member of the society.”
The Fargo Human Relations Commission also sent a letter addressed to KVLY and to Ike Walker, Jim Wareham, Gretchen Hjelmstad, Bradford Arick, and all other KVLY anchors, reporters, and staff.
The letter challenges KVLY and its staff to “heighten its awareness, sensitivity, and standards for fact based reporting,” The letter further admonishes that “the damage from false and irresponsible journalism, compounded with intolerance of people based on religion, race, and ethnicity, damages lives and affects real people,” which the Human Relations Commission opposes.
The Fargo Human Relations Commission also made references to the values espoused by NBC Universal, the parent company of KVLY, saying that the local affiliate station should strive to adhere to those stated values of celebrating “diverse cultures and backgrounds by presenting positive role models, telling diverse success stories, commemorating heritage and fostering dialogue on a variety of platforms.”
The protestors’ fight, according to the Afro American Development Association, has only just begun.
On Monday, the Afro American Development Association began contacting local KVLY advertisers and sponsors, including Sanford Health, Corwin Auto, North Dakota State University, among others, to pull their advertising spots. They’ve also started a #DropKVLY campaign on the association’s Facebook page urging sponsors to join the fight against Valley News Live apparent anti-immigration agenda. The group is also asking community members to check back on their Facebook page for updates and opportunities to circulate letters, sign petitions, and join future actions against KVLY.
“We value you, we support you, you are one of us,” Nelson said when he ended his speech to the protestors. “Fargo has become a place for people to begin new lives. Together, Fargo has become a world-class city.”
“Some of you didn’t choose Fargo,” Mike Williams said. Protestors chuckled. Many of the recent immigrants come from south of the equator, where snow appears only in the movies or in dreams. “But we want you to stay here.”
Requests for a response from Valley News Live management were ignored. Emails and telephone messages sent to KVLY News Director Ike Walker were not returned. Nate Bakke, who works in the station’s production department, said employees were not allowed to speak to the press on the issue.