Refugees unsettle the West

Meatpacking, Ramadan and other cultural collisions in Colorado

  • A Somali woman in native dress outside an East African market in Greeley, Colorado.

    Kira Horvath
  • A Somali refugee practices writing the English alphabet during an ESL class at the East African Community Center in Greeley, Colorado.

    Kira Horvath
  • The Halal Market in Greeley, where East African refugees can get food and clothing from their homeland, as well as conversation in their native tongue.

    Kira Horvath
  • Ahmed Abdi, owner of the Halal Market in Greeley, writes a money order for a Somali refugee to send home.

    Kira Horvath
 

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."

High Country News Classifieds
  • UTAH BEEF
    Grass-fed, grass-finished beef. Available in October. Reserve your beef now. Kate's Land & Cattle Boulder, Utah. [email protected], grassfedbeefbykatie.com
  • SECLUDED COLORADO HIDEAWAY
    This passive solar home sits on 2 lots and offers an abundance of privacy and views while being only 15 minutes to downtown Buena Vista....
  • COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    Introduction: Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization with offices located in Kanab and Escalante, Utah. We are committed to the conservation...
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    For more information visit www. wyofile.com/careers/
  • THRIVING LOCAL HEALTH FOOD STORE FOR SALE
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    For more information, visit www.wyofile.com/careers/
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • WILDLIFE HAVEN
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...