« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Refugees unsettle the West

Meatpacking, Ramadan and other cultural collisions in Colorado

 

See end of story for a complete package of refugee stories in this issue.

Ramadan was celebrated in Greeley, Colo., this year, much as it was throughout the Islamic world. At the JBS meatpacking plant, managers set aside separate places for Muslim men and women to pray, and the workers' break rooms featured plates of dates –– the food traditionally used for breaking the fast. Prayer times were staggered, and Muslim and non-Muslim workers alike timed their breaks so production was neither slowed nor interrupted during the month-long observance.

Who would have guessed that the biggest employer in this Front Range cowtown would actively observe the major Muslim holiday?

The Ramadan story is just one piece of the multicultural puzzle that Greeley, population 90,000, has become. Located some 50 fast-urbanizing miles northeast of Denver, the seat of Weld County has a long history of immigrant labor. In the late 19th century, German-speaking Russian immigrants, escaping drought and famine, came West to toil in the sugar beet fields. After they began unionizing, Japanese workers were brought in, followed by Mexicans and other Latin Americans after 1910. In recent years, undocumented Latinos have flocked to the area for meatpacking jobs. As many as a thousand refugees from East Africa, most of them Somali, have resettled here, along with 200 or so Karen from Southeast Asia. Add in the resident Cubans, Afghanis, Burmese and others, and you get an idea of the cultural stew that is bubbling up -- a recipe rich in both conflict and new opportunities. And it's not just Greeley: From Salt Lake City (where the Somali, Sudanese and Bosnian populations have all reached 5,000) to Tucson, refugees are changing the face of Western cities. Even in Boise, Idaho, newcomers from Burma, Bhutan, Iraq, Burundi, Congo, Togo, Liberia, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan are transforming the community.

The U.S. State Department matches refugees with one of 10 nonprofit agencies, which resettle them in targeted communities. The International Rescue Committee, for example, sends refugees to nine Western cities: Boise, Tucson, Seattle, San Jose, Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Phoenix. Some of these refugees have since made their own way to Greeley -- primarily because the JBS plant was hiring.

A Brazilian company with global ambitions, JBS acquired the Greeley plant in 2007 after a major INS raid in 2006. The new owners have actively recruited refugees with impeccable legal status. Their often-limited education and ability to speak English matter less on a kill floor than their willingness to work for the wages JBS pays. Last year, however, conflict erupted during Ramadan: More than 100 Muslims were fired after they walked out to protest company policies that interfered with their religious observances. Production was disrupted, and angry Hispanic workers complained that the Muslims were asking for preferential treatment. A complaint was filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which concluded that there had been a pattern of discrimination against Muslim workers.

Between that Ramadan and this one, JBS and refugee leaders worked together to avoid a repeat.

This year, "It came off well," says JBS spokesman Chandler Keys.

And Asad Abdi, director of the East African Community Center, concurs: "There were no problems."

The JBS story illustrates how hard Greeley is working to overcome miscommunication and culture clashes, despite huge challenges that neither the town nor its recent arrivals were prepared for. "We don't know quite how many refugees we have here," says Police Chief Jerry Garner. "Nobody's counting them. But we seem like a virtual U.N.  these days." The police department has to explain the rules of the road in Greeley, both literal and figurative, to the newcomers. "My concern has been that we not get overwhelmed by the refugees who are coming here," says Garner. "So far, we're not."

"We usually rely on the goodness of receiving communities," says Paul Stein, state refugee coordinator for Colorado. But the current combination of unprecedented refugee numbers and a decline in funding, aggravated by the economic downturn, has him worried. Stein tracks how many refugees and asylees have settled or resettled in Colorado from 1980 to 2008 -- a total of 37,973 from 85 different countries. But states and cities do not decide how many refugees are accepted from which groups, or which "receiving communities" first accommodate them. Those decisions are made by the federal government.

Inevitably, many refugees move on. They "go where they want or need to be," Stein says, and they make those decisions "close to the ground": "They hear a rumor, and they go. They'd go to the Mojave Desert if they thought they'd be safe, secure and self-sufficient."

When Mamat Kasing's brother-in-law told him about a job at JBS, the 30-year-old moved to Greeley from Denver last August. He works the 4 p.m.-to-midnight second shift for $12 an hour. A Karen refugee from Burma, Kasing was first sent to Lansing, Mich. Now he and his wife, Yahima, and their three young children live at The Pines, a blocky beige apartment complex across from the Greeley Mall that has become the de facto center of the local Karen community. Kasing's brother-in-law, several sisters and his parents also live there. Speaking in still-hesitant English, he says that it is a "good life": He has a job, and his family is near.

On a wide street near downtown, two young women swathed in flowing color chatter as they leave a no-frills one-story office building with a "For Sale" sign in the window and the words "East African Community" on the front door. Inside, young men Google on old computers. Students practice their English, reciting words like "Dumpster" and "wind chill." A grizzled elder, battered briefcase in hand, makes a call on his cell phone. Twenty-year-old Maryan Muse clacks away at a keyboard in the office also used by Abdi, the center's director. Muse, who came from Minnesota 11 months ago with her stepmother and two sisters, bags and boxes meat at JBS when she isn't studying to become a medical assistant or volunteering on Fridays at the East Africa center.

Abdi himself worked at JBS for nine months when he first arrived in Greeley. "When you are a family man, you have responsibility to feed your family and raise your children," he says. Now he works as a translator for Weld County Human Services, helping families apply for food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid. Other Somalis translate at the Municipal Court, he says; one works at a bank, and another at the hospital. Two competing entrepreneurs have opened stores selling African food and clothing.

But JBS stopped hiring this spring. And that is a big problem for refugees and longtime residents alike.

What will happen if yet more people come looking for jobs that no longer exist?

It hasn't helped that unemployment in Weld County reached 8.7 percent this summer. As Conway points out, the local costs of dealing with refugees are not picked up by the state or the federal government.

And Greeley, like most communities, has its pre-existing divisions. "Every group of newcomers has been discriminated against," observes Dick Bond, former president of the University of Northern Colorado, remembering the Volga Germans, Japanese and Mexicans. The 2000 census described Greeley's population as 34 percent Latino/Hispanic. Bond thinks the raid on JBS both exposed and exacerbated the conflict between legal and illegal residents.

Anger and resentment surface regularly in the Greeley Tribune. "Somalis, you don't like America, go back to Somali," snarled "9" this July in an online forum. "Why do we grant so many people citizenship or even green cards? Anyone who is not blind sees the problems it causes," posted "beerdrinker."

As Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway puts it, attitudes in Greeley have not always been as broad and inviting as the city's streets. That lends a certain urgency to the compassionate response of people like Maria Sanchez and Cathy Sandoval. Sandoval runs The Right to Read, a nonprofit that teaches English to adults. She already copes with 12 different language groups and has a waiting list of 200. Sanchez, a 40-year resident of Greeley, is the central cog of "Realizing Our Community," or ROC, a three-year program to welcome newcomers -- legal or illegal, immigrant or refugee. As a child, she picked beets, onions and potatoes in Greeley with her migrant-worker parents. Though she dropped out of school at 14, she went on to get her GED -- and eventually a Ph.D.

"Anything I need, Maria helps," says Kasing. "She helped my wife get to hospital to have baby."

"Maria helps," agrees Abdi. "She showed us resources, and she gives us connections to leaders."

"It's all about building trust and relationships," says Sanchez, who has attracted influential community leaders to her board and mobilized the enthusiasm of volunteers such as Sierra Patterson. A UNC anthropology major who met Sanchez last spring while researching a paper, Patterson has since organized three ROC clothing drives for Karen refugees, found and delivered thousands of dollars' worth of furniture to them, recruited other volunteers, run a fund-raiser, and taught English classes at The Pines. "You learn so much from these people," says Patterson. "What they face is incredibly difficult.  I commend them."

For his part, Abdi simply hopes that the refugees will be able to "live like the others, peacefully, friendfully, becoming American like others." But in hard economic times like these, that is likely to prove easier said than done.

More refugee stories:

Editor’s note: The newest Westerners
Immigrants from around the world are changing traditionally white Western communities such as Boise, Idaho.

An orphan heads to college
Chan Kuoth's journey has taken him from Sudan to Tucson, Ariz., where he hopes to help other refugees.

A hard-fought immigration victory
Valentina Kabinov's family, Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union, fought for years to stay in the U.S.

Seeking a vocation in a no-man’s land
Salam Talib, who barely escaped from Iraq with his life, now seeks a new beginning in San Francisco.

A new kind of ministry
Tom Simbo, who faced down gun-toting soldiers in Sierra Leone, now works with other immigrants in Denver, Colo.

Refugees by the numbers
Placing the influx of refugees in the West in context.

More than English
The Emily Griffith School has taught English to immigrants and refugees since its Language Learning Center opened in 1981. Using creativity, games and encouragement, the school also offers an orientation to U.S. culture and workplace protocol.

“I like America”
Multimedia: A unique neighborhood north of Seattle is home to about a dozen different ethnic groups, most of them refugees. The neighborhood center is used on Sunday mornings for Russian church, on Fridays for Arabic Muslim services, on weeknights for ESL classes for Somali Bantu.