Here’s Where Refugees Are Seeing Snow For The First Time This Winter

Snow can be magical but also dangerous to those who are unfamiliar

Mar 16, 2017 at 6:04 PM ET

Winter Storm Stella deposited anywhere from three to nearly six feet of snow throughout much of the Northeast on Tuesday, closing roads, transit, schools, and many businesses. For most people in the region, the blizzard was an extreme but basically familiar experience, not unlike previous heavy snowstorms. But for many refugees newly arrived in the United States within the past year, snowstorms like Stella represent something totally unprecedented.

A story published Wednesday in Rhode Island’s Providence Journal tells the story of Gustave Burikukiye, a refugee from the central African country of Burundi. As the article recounts, Burikukiye had never seen snow before he arrived in the United States in 2002. While that might sound like the setup for a sweet little human interest story, a lack of familiarity with snow can have serious consequences for refugees, who may not have the experience or resources to deal with bitingly cold temperatures or being unexpected stuck in their homes.

These are points Burikukiye makes to new arrivals in his work at a resettlement agency.  “We explained that because of the storm, there will be no school,” he told the Providence Journal. “There will be much snow falling and we may lose power … If you don’t have enough food, go to the store.”

Burikukiye’s story illuminates a larger issue facing hundreds of thousands refugees nationwide. A Vocativ analysis of data from the Refugee Processing Center suggests that, of the 900,000 refugees who have come to the United States since 2002, half a million of them come from regions that never or extremely rarely see snow. That includes countries from throughout much of Africa, Cuba and Central America, and south Asia. While many of these refugees do end up in warm, snowless cities — Houston, Phoenix, Dallas, and Miami are all in the top ten of destinations for this group — about 160,000 arrive in cities that receive more than two feet of snow a year. That’s more than the U.S. average and enough to cause problems if a big enough snowstorm hits, like this week’s blizzard.

Minnesota’s twin cities are the most common wintry destination, having welcomed nearly 25,000 refugees in the past 15 years. Buffalo is next on the list with more than 10,000, and it’s also toward the top of the snowiest refugee cities, dealing with nearly 100 inches of snow annually. Gustave Burikukiye and the other 2,000 refugees who have come to Providence since 2002 actually get off relatively easily, seeing just under three feet of snow per year.

And while winter storms might seem relatively manageable for people forced to flee their countries, this all points to the fact that the challenges do not end for refugees once they arrive in their new home — even leaving aside the question of what kind of welcome refugees can now expect under the Trump administration. In Minnesota, some — fearful of being deported — are braving long snowy crossings to flee even further north, into Canada.