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

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So Isse grew up as an American teenager, running track and playing high school football. After he graduated from high school in Minneapolis, where his mother had moved, his globetrotting continued. He took college classes in California, then completed his degree in Kenya before ending up back in San Diego. There he worked for a transportation tracking company, drove a taxi, even took some law school classes.

Isse moved to Greeley last summer because a friend from California, Aziz Dhies, was working as a nurse there and suggested that Isse might like the town as well. Isse was hired as a translator at Swift and had only been on the job for about a week when the Ramadan controversy began. He was thrust into the midst of the problem as he negotiated on behalf of hundreds of people whom he had only just met. He, too, was fired because he went home to eat and rest on the day the dispute was resolved instead of returning immediately to work. But he quickly found a new job, working part-time as a translator at the Weld County courts. And he and Dhies dedicated themselves to community organizing, forming the East Africa Community, which aims to be "the middleman between the leaders and our community," Isse says.

The elder Somali men in Greeley elected seven people to be part of the group; Dhies is chairman, Isse the spokesman. With donations gathered from the community, they found an office space and began translating for their fellow refugees, helping them fill out paperwork for jobs, food stamps, subsidized housing. They talked of starting English classes that weren't held in a church, and after-school programs for the kids. But there was little they could do to get people back on the assembly line.

In the days following the mass firings, John Bowen, a lawyer for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, announced at a public meeting that he had filed grievances on behalf of at least ninety workers. But he declined to comment for this story. UFCW spokesman Dave Peterson also declined, saying negotiations with Swift were still ongoing. Fernando Rodriguez, a leader in the union's Greeley office, didn't respond to repeated phone calls.

JBS Swift spokeswoman Tamara Smid refused, via e-mail, to comment as well, saying, "We don't have any updates to provide." Dhies, however, believes that at least sixteen of the fired Somalis were hired back at Swift.

(And Swift has other, more pressing problems to address. Its owner, Brazil's JBS S.A., is fighting the U.S. Justice Department and attorneys general in thirteen states, including Colorado, who sued to prevent the company from acquiring National Beef Packing Company, which would make JBS the largest beef processor in the United States. Colorado Attorney General John Suthers worried the merger would concentrate control of the industry in just three companies and increase the price of beef.)

But Swift isn't the first company to struggle with how to accommodate Muslim prayer breaks. In 2005, about thirty Somali Muslims walked off the job at a Dell Inc. computer packaging plant in Nashville, Tennessee, because the company refused to allow them a sunset prayer break. The dispute was resolved within days, thanks to mediation by the Nashville Metro Human Relations Commission. The workers were allowed to return to work and promised a sunset prayer break.

The next year, at Gold'n Plump Poultry chicken processing plants in Cold Spring, Minnesota, and Arcadia, Wisconsin, Somali Muslim workers filed a federal lawsuit alleging that they were fired for taking prayer breaks. The suit was settled earlier this month when the company agreed to provide two daily breaks for all workers at the plants.

And at a Swift plant in Grand Island, Nebraska, more than 100 Somali workers quit in May 2007 because they were denied an evening prayer break. Many later returned to the assembly line, but tensions continued to build, and a few months later, the Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed a charge with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that dozens of Grand Island workers were fired or harassed for trying to pray at sunset.

Christina Abraham, civil-rights director for the Chicago chapter of CAIR, says her group tried for months to work out a solution with Swift and the UFCW in Nebraska with no success. Muslim employees had proposed a "tag" system, where a few workers could quickly leave the assembly line to pray, then come back and tap the next person on the shoulder to take a break. This way, the line is not interrupted, the breaks are unpaid, and non-Muslim workers' schedules don't need to change.

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab