FARGO — After each passing winter, four-time refugee Laetitia Mizero tacks on another year she's lived in Fargo.
It's now up to 20.
In light of birthright citizenship, when children born in the U.S. are entitled to citizenship, being called into question by lawmakers, for Mizero it's personal.
"I like to joke ... that Fargo chose us," she said. "I had never heard of Fargo."
Mizero was born in Burundi, a landlocked country in central Africa.
Amid political, social and ethnic strife, tensions turned into violence forcing her and her family to flee on several occasions.
She left Burundi to France, then her family eventually moved as close as they could to neighboring Rwanda.
"Life was normal — as normal as it could get not really knowing what the future holds."
In 1983, Mizero became a mother to her son Yann and it changed her life forever.
"It's very hard to make the decision to leave for good. You try to work on staying as much as you can. You keep hoping for the best," Mizero said.
Her father wanted the children to get an education and she remembers what he once said before they left.
"For him it was you're either going to die physically or you're going to die intellectually — either way you are dead."
With her baby to look out for, it was time.
"I don't want to raise my son here," she said. "Even though you feel like you know how to survive, you feel added responsibility when you have a child."
In 1996, in her early 20s, she left Burundi for Burkina Faso, a country on the opposite side of the continent.
She knew it wasn't her permanent destination.
Fears about renewing her visa and a dead-end job search forced her to swallow her pride and apply for refugee status with the United Nations.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has three solutions for refugees:
- Help refugees go back to their home countries or countries with similar customs.
- Help refugees integrate in the country they fled or sought asylum in.
- Help refugees resettle in a different country.
She took a gamble with resettlement, which has strict criteria and low odds of qualification, and it weighed heavily on her.
"It's really emotionally and physically and financially taxing," she recalled. "You're also dealing with the trauma of whatever situation got you there, like the war, and asking yourself, 'How in the world did I end up here?' "
Against the odds, she was stunned to hear she was selected to come to the United States.
This was the first family from Burundi to ever live in North Dakota.
"It's something that we really take with pride but also that seems like a responsibility. We always feel like we have to be good," she said with a smile. "Twenty winters later, I'm still here, so I guess I chose to stay."
For her 23-year-old son Yann Niteka, this is the only home he knows.
"I remember landing in Fargo and walking out of the doors of Hector International Airport into the coldness of October for the first time as a three-year-old."
He knows how hard his family worked to provide him with the life he has.
"It's always been a motivator for me to do something with my life," Niteka said. "To really take every day and try to maximize it and make the most out of that day."
He has a tattoo of the North Dakota state outline.
"I said, 'Why did you choose that outline?' " Mizero recalled. "And he looked at me and he said, 'Because it's home.' "
Niteka graduated from West Fargo High School and North Dakota State University.
"I'm 100% rooted and involved here," he said.
Mizero expressed relief in the fact her son and daughter can live the lives she worked so tirelessly for them to have.
"As a parent, I'm feel very relieved to know that they found that place they can call home because as a four-time refugee, I didn't have that — it took me forever to find out, where is home?"
"It makes all of it — the ups and downs of the journey — whatever it took, it does make it, worth it," she said.
As the concept of eliminating birthright citizenship or sending refugees away continues to make headlines, Mizero is perplexed and worried.
"We can enrich each other from different perspectives. Do yourself a favor, grow with me or with your neighbor. You might learn one thing or two," Mizero said.
Mizero's influence can be felt throughout the community as a published author, intra-cultural consultant, social justice advocate, founder of UBUNTU consulting, and a board member on the Human Relations Commission for the city of Fargo.