Nonprofit works with dairy to find jobs for political refugees
By JESSIE L. BONNER
BOARDMAN, Ore. -- On the road to Threemile Canyon Farms, Achut Shiwakoti stared out at the neat rows of corn and fields of fresh mint, his father anxiously nudging him to translate as their new workplace came into view.
There is little the International Rescue Committee, an Idaho-based refugee agency, can do to prepare its clients for the vastness of the operation that is Oregon's largest dairy. But the 93,000-acre complex has provided steady jobs in a recession that makes it difficult for even highly educated refugees fluent in English to get hired.
Conversely, with the immigration status of industrial farmworkers across the nation coming into sharper focus, legal political refugees offer another option for employers.
Shiwakoti, 21, started the day with tearful good-byes to his mother and sister in the parking lot of their Boise apartment complex. He was still grappling with where his journey from South Asia to America had now taken him.
"It's very sad, you know, it's very hard to leave each other," Shiwakoti said.
His family fled Bhutan under threat of death, left the Nepalese refugee camp for a better life in America, and traded their new life in Arizona for the cheaper cost of living in Idaho.
And here, in rural northeastern Oregon, the refugee group had found employment for Shiwakoti, his father and six other refugees at the dairy in the Columbia River Basin.
Shiwakoti and his father, 48-year-old Bhola Shiwakoti, went to the Boise office of the International Rescue Committee seeking help several weeks ago -- but they didn't anticipate this.
"Boise just started bleeding jobs," said Lana Whiteford, a hiring specialist for International Rescue. "Hotels and restaurants just didn't need us anymore."
A livestock manager at Threemile Canyon Farms heard about the refugees' employment plight on public radio two years ago and contacted Whiteford. Since January 2009, she has helped about 45 refugees get jobs at Threemile Canyon and find affordable housing in nearby Boardman.
The dairy with a predominantly Hispanic work force now employees refugees who escaped political and ethnic persecution in Burma, Sudanese who fled genocide, Iraqis who were forced to leave their war-torn country for both religious and political reasons and Somalis who left their country because of ongoing strife and bloodshed.
Shiwakoti and his father are among the ethnic Nepalis who've fled Bhutan since the early 1990s, leaving amid threats that those who stayed would be burned to death in their homes.
The men joined a third refugee from Nepali, two men from Burma and three from Somalia in this latest group ferried on the four-hour drive through rural eastern Oregon countryside.
As Whiteford brought the rented sport utility to a stop in front of a large warehouse at the dairy, the men hopped out. Shiwakoti wrinkled his nose as the thick smell of manure washed over him.
"Perfume?" Shiwakoti joked. The men filed into the building to do paperwork, and later were taken to a clinic for drug testing.
In a small waiting room, 22-year-old Abdi Abdikadir tried to contemplate what his life would be like in Boardman, a rural town of less than 5,000 people. He decided not to worry.
"We're too young to think about our life right now," said Abdikadir, nodding toward the two other refugees from Somalia, Abdi Abdullah and Ahmed Omar. Their paths crossed several years ago in Kakuma, a city of refugee camps in Kenya.
On a tour of the milking parlor, where he and the other new workers will likely end up, Abdikadir couldn't suppress his laughter at the dozens of cows standing up on giant industrial merry-go-rounds, machines that allow the workers to quickly milk thousands of animals every 12 hours.
The work is difficult, and for the first two weeks their shoulders will most likely ache with soreness, said Ibraham Hassan, a 34-year-old from Darfur who has been working at the dairy for four months.
There is a simplicity to the lifestyle, Hassan said, the repetition of getting up every morning and driving 20 miles to the dairy, coming home to shower and eat and then going to bed. But he misses living in a city, hearing conversations in English.
"Here, it's all in Spanish," Hassan said.
He lives in a modest apartment with blank white walls. He shares a bedroom with another worker, watches a small television that sits on the floor.
The International Rescue Committee has gone to great lengths to facilitate the refugees' presence at the dairy, securing housing and transportation for them.
Even so, there was initial backlash to their presence in Oregon. Threemile Canyon Farms was asked why the dairy was taking on refugee employees when the Portland unemployment rate had climbed into the double digits, human resources manager Rose Corral said. She said she told critics they should apply for the jobs if they didn't want refugees to take them.
"We were happy to get anybody that would come and apply and we just didn't get people," Corral said.
As the new group of workers settled in for their first night in Boardman, Whiteford made plans to pick them up the next morning for their first day of work.
Shiwakoti took off his new shoes -- a pair of child-size 6 rubber boots purchased at a Wal-Mart stop in Pendleton, Ore. -- and played music, while his father sat on the kitchen floor skinning a chicken they'd eat for dinner. The men were tired but appeared to be in good spirits.
The Shiwakoti family had lived in a refugee camp for 18 years. Even when he boarded the plane to the United States, Shiwakoti said, the vastness of the journey didn't hit home for him.
"I'm just thinking, this is my dream," Shiwakoti said. "I'm living my dream."