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

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"There are very viable and reasonable solutions that...for whatever reason, the company is not implementing," Abraham says of Swift.

Somali workers continue to be treated differently than other workers, she says, and denied promotions. This September, just days after the conflict in Greeley ended, another one erupted in Grand Island. Mass protests by Somalis led Swift to institute new break times during Ramadan. However, the breaks would have been unpaid, and would have shut down the entire assembly line — a situation the non-Muslim workers were upset about. So the company rescinded the deal. Then, more than eighty Somali workers who still wanted to pray were fired for repeatedly walking off the line without permission.

Abraham, whose group is now filing more EEOC discrimination charges on behalf of the newly fired workers, blames the union for not helping to unify all the employees — Hispanic, Muslim and everyone else — and find a solution. "The union has been very inadequate at basically unionizing the workers," Abraham says.

Meanwhile, Denver attorney Diane King is filing EEOC charges on behalf of more than eighty Greeley Swift workers. While she wouldn't reveal the details, she says they involve allegations of discrimination and harassment based on race, national origin and religion. "There's a hostile work environment, there's differential treatment between the Somali workers and the other workers...pay issues, all kinds of stuff," she says.

One of the most important issues when it comes to the future of the Somali community in Greeley is whether prayer breaks will be included in next year's union contract with Swift. Dhies and Isse were told that the East Africa Community would be involved in the contract negotiations. But those talks have yet to begin.

King says it's her understanding that the union is not even trying to resolve the prayer issue. "We are," she says.

By the end of October, the firings had started to take a visible toll. Imam Omar Mussa, of the Greeley Islamic Center on 8th Avenue, estimated that 70 to 100 Somalis had left his mosque. "Not by choice," he wrote in an e-mail to Westword. "They left the mosque because they had to leave the city in order to make a decent living."

The only African/Middle Eastern restaurant in town had closed too. Dhies and a Somali business partner, Mohamed Farey, had bought a restaurant on 8th Avenue called the Burrito, where they served a mix of burritos, chicken shawarma, spicy basmati rice and sweet, milky tea. But it only lasted five months.

Isse and several current Swift workers say that Swift officials, while hiring some new employees, have stopped hiring Somali applicants. "Nobody stays here if they don't have jobs," Dhies says. "It's hard to get a job here in Greeley."

At the Aspen Apartments on 29th Street Road, the mood is warm but subdued. The two-story complex, with balconies designed for chatting across the courtyard, had been completely filled a few weeks earlier. But six of the 24 apartments were vacated after the firings, according to the manager, who identifies himself only as David. He expects two more to be empty soon. "It's just been tough," he says. "We were full, and then, after all the firings and stuff like that, people just couldn't afford to pay their rent."

A lanky, grinning sixteen-year-old soccer fiend named Hajir Abdi bounds out onto the balcony to join the conversation. He's a junior at Greeley West High School and moved here a year ago from Kansas City. But both his mom and dad were fired from Swift, and their lack of English skills made it nearly impossible to find another job in Greeley, so this morning, he had to say goodbye to his dad, who left to work at a Tyson Foods plant in Nebraska. Hajir stayed behind with his mother, hoping to finish school.

Mary-Ann Adow, Hajir's nineteen-year-old classmate, is in an even worse predicament. She grew up in a crowded Kenyan refugee camp, sleeping in a hut made of tree branches and plastic covering, standing in endless lines for food and water. There were no jobs in the camp, so her parents sold wood to earn money. Still, it wasn't enough to pay for school for their fourteen children.

When they finally made it to America in 2005, her family was resettled in Minnesota. Adow didn't speak any English and found school to be a constant challenge. In July, she moved to Greeley to live with her uncle and try the schools here. She's since become the de facto mayor of the Aspen apartment complex, strutting around in a red, white and blue headscarf, chatting with everyone and proudly showing off her English skills by translating stories. She talks of going to college and becoming a lawyer to help people like the Swift workers, and "to show the people the right thing; they have to do it."

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab