There's no place like home for Somali refugees in Greeley

Zuheyra was freezing on the evening of September 5, even colder than usual because she was starving. The knife she used to slice fat off the endless slabs of raw beef lining up before her felt heavy in her cramped hands, and the frigid, sterile air in the meat-packing plant did nothing to quench the dryness in her mouth.

She had been standing there for four and a half hours, her 22-year-old body covered with the nearly twenty pounds of protective gear — a heavy jacket, hard hat, gloves — required for workers at the JBS Swift & Company plant in Greeley. The extra weight, combined with the empty pit in her stomach, made Zuheyra dizzy.

She was accustomed to the soreness in her muscles, the nightly routine of massaging her neck and shoulders to remove the ache in her knife-wielding arm. But this hunger was an extra burden, and it didn't change in spite of the bloody carcasses all around her. It was the holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims must fast from sunrise to sundown every day. Zuheyra, who didn't want her last name used in this story because she still works at Swift, hadn't eaten in fourteen hours. She was counting the minutes until her 7:30 p.m. break, when she could finally have some water and a snack.

Earlier in the week, her fellow Somali Muslim workers on the second shift had negotiated to have their regular break time moved to 7:30 p.m., to coincide with sunset and allow them to drink water and pray to break their fast. For two days, the routine had worked out fine. On the third day, some of the Hispanic workers at the plant protested because the time was earlier than the one spelled out in their union contract. Swift officials reached a compromise, moving the break time to around 8 p.m. But it was a last-minute decision, and the Somalis, many of whom don't speak English, didn't get word.

So at 7:30 p.m., crowds of Muslims tried to leave, but their supervisors wouldn't let them pass, blocking the hallways leading to the restrooms and water fountains. Zuheyra felt the panic rise in her chest. Her religion dictated that she had to pray exactly at sunset or all those hours of fasting would be wasted in the eyes of Allah. "If I don't pray, my fast is not going to be acceptable," she explains through a translator.

Zuheyra had been a Swift employee for about six months. In 2006, she'd left her family behind in a refugee camp in Egypt and flown to Houston, Texas, as part of the U.S. State Department's refugee resettlement program. She got a job at a clothing factory there but was laid off earlier this year. So friends already in Greeley urged her to move, telling her that Swift would double her earnings.

She joined 400 other Somalis who had flocked to the small farming town to take jobs at the plant. It was dangerous, exhausting work; a 2005 Human Rights Watch report said meatpacking has the highest rate of injury and illness in the manufacturing industry. Still, it allowed her to rent an apartment while still sending plenty of money home to her relatives. And she was surrounded by a supportive community of fellow Somali Muslims.

But now she was being forced to choose between this $12.10-an-hour job and her faith, the one unquestionable force in her wildly unstable life. In the end, it wasn't really a choice at all. She joined more than 200 of her fellow Muslim workers and walked out.

Somali refugees have been coming to Colorado for at least ten years — some by choice, many by chance. Most East African refugees, when trying to escape camps in Kenya or Ethiopia, don't get to pick where they land in America. Unless they have family in a specific town, the U.S. government selects a city for them based on the availability of resettlement agencies and resources such as jobs and transportation.

In 2007 there were 1,800 Somalis living in Colorado, primarily in Denver, where they receive housing, Medicaid, and several months' worth of cash assistance from resettlement agencies like Lutheran Family Services, says Paul Stein, director of the Colorado Refugee Services Program. Because refugees are automatically considered legal workers, many find jobs cleaning hotel rooms, driving cabs or serving burgers at Denver International Airport. Over the years, they have formed communities in neighborhoods in Aurora, opening restaurants and shops tucked into strip malls around Mississippi and Florida avenues and Havana Street.

Many people who have spent more than a decade in refugee camps must learn how to cook, use electricity, obey traffic lights. It's not an easy transition, particularly for Muslim women. Employers often hesitate to hire people who look so foreign, with their long dresses and head scarves, says Rashid Sadiq, president of the Somali Organization of Colorado in Denver. Somalis may speak five or six languages, but their religion and culture set them apart.

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab