Leadership Transition at Refugee Services

After 16 years of staff and contract roles with Refugee Services, the time has come to bid a fond farewell to our Director, Kristine Bjerkaas Friesen. She is joining the staff at the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Resettlement Programs Office, where she will serve as a primary contact at the state level working to ensure access for refugees to state assistance programs. Taking her place, we are excited to welcome back Ben Walen as Interim Director.

We hope you’ll take a few moments to read Kristine’s farewell note and Ben’s introduction!

Farewell Note from Kristine:

Since starting my work in refugee resettlement at MCC in 1999, there has not been a single day that I have arrived at work feeling confident in my abilities to face the unseen challenges the day might bring.  I have had a daily meditative ritual in which – during my morning drive – I ask to be granted the attributes I will most need in whatever lies ahead in the day. There have been bad days, most certainly. There have been plenty of days I have not been my best or enough for the challenge at hand. So what has compelled me to keep showing up all these years? That I have never ended a day without having learned something new: about myself, about refugees, about our community, about the world we live in.

Resettlement work offers endlessly new experiences and challenges, and calls you to be and become more than you are and think you can be. It is vital, important work. It can be painful and discouraging. It is energizing and fun and adventurous. It can be tiring and overwhelming. It is work that exists because of some of the most horrific things that happen around the world. It is work that brings the world into the MCC lobby. It is work that has brought me friends from around the globe, refugees who – despite the worst of personal life experiences – have taught me about hope and optimism and gratitude. As all life experiences that shape us into who we are, it is beautiful and meaningful and memorable because it is not easy.

Paramount in the lessons that my work has taught me, is this: that the most important offerings we can bring to our life endeavors and efforts are NOT perfection, control, or confidence. But rather Resilience, Hope, and Persistence. This, I think, may be what courage is. Just showing up, giving what you’ve got that day, trying again tomorrow.

Resettlement work is not work one can do alone. I have had the deep honor of working with a staff team over the years that has supported me, challenged me, taught me, tolerated me, learned with me, laughed with me. And I have been blessed by the generosity of spirit and response from a community of volunteers, donors, congregations, and community members who have continually stepped into support of refugees in astonishing and moving ways. How lucky I am to have had these experiences, these stories, these people, this community. I am deeply grateful to all of you who have been a part of my journey with MCC. As I move forward to new work, I simply want to say thank you for your many gifts. And thank you for your continuing commitment – whether staff, volunteer, donor – to walking alongside those whose example lights the inviting path of courage for all of us to follow: our refugee neighbors.

Introduction from Ben:

Hi, I’m Ben Walen, and I’m excited to rejoin the staff of Refugee Services!  This is my second time at Minnesota Council of Churches, having served as Interim Director of Refugee Services back in 2007. The work that goes on here is challenging, fulfilling and important, and it’s done by staff and volunteers who are resourceful, compassionate and committed. It is a great privilege for me to be working with them to welcome newcomers to our community.

I have worked in programs serving refugees and immigrants for most of my career.  After two years teaching English in Ethiopia as a Peace Corps volunteer, I returned to Minnesota with a desire to work with immigrants here in the United States. I landed at Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, where I worked as a refugee resettlement case manager, employment counselor and, later, program manager.

Following another year of volunteering overseas – this time as an administrator for a clinic and school run by Catholic nuns in Honduras – I continued to work for organizations that serve refugees in varying capacities. I’ve worked in support of programs that sustain families in refugee camps around the world, and I’ve helped a national network of resettlement programs welcome newcomers to this country. I also returned to school to earn Master’s Degree in Public Affairs with a focus in Global Economic Development from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute.

I live in Minneapolis with my wife and two children. When I’m not at work, there’s a good chance you could find me at a PTA meeting, at my children’s sporting events or performances, or off somewhere strumming a guitar. I look forward to my time at the Minnesota Council of Churches and doing my part to welcome and serve our newest neighbors!


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