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

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"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.

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