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."

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