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

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"They don't have a lack of knowledge, but they have...a cultural barrier," Sadiq says. Still, living in a city with Ethiopian nightclubs, Vietnamese soup joints and Russian Jewish shop owners helps. At least Somalis can see that they will eventually find their niche.

By contrast, Greeley feels like an insular farming town. Its main drag, 8th Avenue, is lined with sagging, single-story storefronts, hand-painted signs and dusty drive-thrus. The western suburbs have country-club lawns and sweeping mountain views. The east side of town gets the manure-scented breezes. The city is filled with taco joints and cheap apartment complexes where many immigrant workers live.

Hispanics have been in Greeley for years, attracted by the many factory and agricultural jobs. But their numbers have swelled in recent decades, and they now make up at least 30 percent of the city's population of 89,000, according to the U.S. Census.

This is an equation that makes many longtime residents uncomfortable. In November 2007, the city voted out Mayor Tom Selders, who was painted as too soft on illegal immigrants. He was replaced by Ed Clark, an ex-cop who linked illegal immigrants to a rise in gang activity and violent crime.

Then came the ICE raids.

In December 2006, federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials descended on the Swift plant, arresting and deporting hundreds of illegal workers as their families sobbed outside. The raid was part of a national crackdown that shook the meatpacking industry and left Swift desperate for a new source of cheap labor.

Refugees — those who fear persecution in their native countries and have been screened by the Department of Homeland Security for resettlement in America — are both cheap and legal. After the raid, some Somalis say, Swift sent recruiters to African restaurants in Denver, offering them cash to work in Greeley. The word spread quickly among Somali refugees from Denver to Kansas City to California, as friends and relatives talked up the job openings and the larger paychecks to be earned at the Swift plant.

Swift added a night shift to its assembly line and hired hundreds of Somalis to fill the posts. Suddenly, Muslim women in head scarves were standing in line at the Greeley Wal-Mart, and African workers who spoke very little English were competing for jobs with the more assimilated Hispanic population that make up the union rank and file.

"I think there is a tension because these are all newcomers who may have limited English skills," says Amber Tafoya, public-policy coordinator for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, a non-profit, statewide alliance that advocates for immigrants and refugees. "I think there is a misperception that they're asking for special treatment."

On the assembly line, Zuheyra's supervisors and co-workers talked in Spanish but used only basic hand signals to speak with her — lift this, cut this, no you can't go to the bathroom right now.

Meanwhile, the Greeley community outside the factory did its best to adjust. In August, officials with Weld County School District 6 rushed to help Somali parents enroll dozens of their kids in school. Many of the 35 Somali children now enrolled speak better English than their parents, says district communications director Roger Fiedler. "We're thrilled to have them with us in our schools; they're wonderful students," he says.

But working with the adults is an ongoing challenge. To help the Somalis — as well as Mexican, Burmese and other immigrants — integrate into the town, the University of Northern Colorado is running a program called Realizing Our Community (ROC), which has established an adult literacy program and holds monthly meetings with leaders of the Somali community, trying to educate them about how to enroll kids in school, take advantage of health care and social services and find jobs.

The university is using a $300,000 grant provided by the Colorado Trust, a non-profit foundation that is trying to set up similar groups in nineteen cities across the state. (Denver's version, called the Denver Coalition for Integration, is a collaboration between city government, schools, non-profits and religious groups.)

In Greeley, recent talks have focused on what the schools should do with Muslim kids during Christmas and what adults should do to avoid getting so many traffic tickets.

"I believe as long as they're here and working at JBS, then we would want them to integrate more into the community," says Christine Marston, an economics professor at the University of Northern Colorado and chairperson of ROC.

At the beginning of November, representatives from ROC, the school district and a Somali group called East Africa Community traveled to Minneapolis to see how a state with an estimated 40,000 Somalis handles things. They learned about the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, which runs after-school and sports programs for kids, and also helps explain cultural and religious differences to employers. "Minneapolis is way ahead of us," says Maria Sanchez, director of ROC. "They're very welcoming and prepared...while we're just starting that process."

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab