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

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Perhaps no one illustrates this difference more than Greeley mayor Ed Clark. He notes that the Somalis "look different than people that usually live here in Greeley," and he wishes they would "learn how to speak English." But, he adds, "They seem to be good people, working hard, trying to etch out a life for themselves like everybody else."

As for whether he wants them in Greeley permanently, Clark doesn't mind much either way. "I don't blame 'em if they leave if they don't have work," he says. "But do I want them to leave? Well, no."

After the walkout in September, Swift executives held intense negotiations with a handful of English-speaking representatives of the Muslim workers and worked out a deal to establish an earlier break time. The company ordered those who walked out to return to work on Tuesday, September 9. While the workers who had gathered to wait out the negotiations in Lincoln Park in downtown Greeley got the word that afternoon, others had gone home to prepare food and break their fast. Some of them received phone calls from the union; others did not. The result was that more than a hundred workers failed to return to the plant until the following day and were promptly fired.

A spokeswoman for JBS S.A., the owner of the Swift plant, wouldn't comment on the controversy. However, in a written statement released in September, the company explained its actions this way: "Union leadership was notified and employees were told that, pursuant to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, failure to report to work when recalled would result in their immediate termination. A majority of the suspended employees returned to work last night and those that did not, approximately 100 employees, were notified this afternoon (9/10) of their termination."

Suddenly, Greeley had a different problem: Scores of Somalis, out of work and worried about making their rent. Within weeks, the fired workers began leaving town for jobs at packing plants in Fort Morgan, Nebraska and Minnesota. They emptied out the Greeley Islamic Center mosque, left vacant apartments, even shut down the only African restaurant in town, creating a massive rupture in the community.

"We keep pushing our community: Stay and work...here in Colorado, you can find your way," says the Somali Organization's Sadiq. A professional interpreter who moved from Utah eight years ago, Sadiq is convinced that if his countrymen study English while taking temporary jobs at the mall or hotels, they can prosper. "I think anyone can adjust for any life," he says.

But that's not always the natural inclination for refugees accustomed to nomadic lives — first in refugee camps, then in America, constantly searching for a better job and a bigger paycheck.

"It's hard, because people are so used to being on the move," Tafoya adds. "People lived for years and years with war and being displaced, but eventually that wears on you. When there are challenges, it's best to stick it out because that's the way we create community."

Graen Isse, a local Somali leader, understands these conflicting impulses well. In his fourteen years in America, he's bounced between three states. Now he's trying to figure out how to help Greeley's Somali community survive, even if he's not sure how long he'll stick around himself.

Slim and amiable, the 27-year-old Isse is constantly in motion — knee tapping, cell phone wire hanging from his ear, eyes scanning the room. He was born in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, a place that has been fighting off foreign invaders for more than a century. Its nomadic inhabitants identify themselves as Somali and Muslim, yet the region has been controlled by Ethiopia since the 1950s. In the late '70s, the Ogaden people resumed their battle for independence and have never given it up, despite news reports of Ethiopian soldiers killing and gang-raping civilians and of widespread famine in the region. Many of the Somali refugees in Greeley are from Ogaden, Isse says.

When he was a year old, Isse and his family moved across the border to Somalia. But when the civil war began eight years later, he and his younger brother and sisters returned to Ogaden to stay with relatives. They were separated from their parents for nearly two years and forced to wait without any news of their family as the war raged on.

One day, Isse's older brother appeared and announced that their parents had escaped to neighboring Kenya. As his family was reunited, another of Isse's brothers, who had been injured in the war, made it to California as a refugee. He told the government about his family back home, clearing the way for Isse and several members of his family to apply for refugee status and move to San Diego.

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab