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Refugees start a new life on Oregon dairy

Alisa Anderson Published on 07 October 2009

“Working with cows is good because I am Hindu, and the cow is an animal to be seen with respect. Working with cows makes me happy,” says Indra Gautam, a refugee originally from Bhutan.

The son of a schoolteacher while in Nepal, he now stands in rubber boots, a blue apron and plastic gloves.

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Gautam has been working as a milker at the Threemile Canyon Farms dairy since February to support his parents and two siblings. The hope is that someday they will be able to find jobs as well.

Once they can take care of themselves, Gautam says he will save his money and finish the schooling he began in Nepal, where he received a bachelor’s of business. His goal is to get a master’s degree.

Gautam is one of several refugees at the dairy who were driven from their homes because they were ethnically Nepalese. They moved to Nepal where they remained in refugee camps for years. Rudro, another refugee from Bhutan, is also a milker at the dairy.

“When I was 4 years old, I left my country due to the political situation, and I moved to Nepal. I stayed in the refugee camp for 18 years. I was sorrowful of life and of having different troubles and struggles. After that, I moved to the U.S., and I have been here only nine months,” Rudro says.

All of the refugees at the dairy had to leave their homelands because of political repression or ethnic cleansing. After a rigorous screening and some orientation, the refugees were brought to the U.S. and put in the care of the International Rescue Committee.

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The IRC helps refugees by teaching them English, training them for jobs and helping them find work. It has been difficult in the current economy to find full-time jobs, but more and more refugees are now finding these jobs in agriculture.

Rudro and Gautam are two of 27 refugees that were hired at Threemile Canyon Farms. They live near the dairy in Boardman, Oregon. They say that Boardman, which is a small, out-of-the-way town, reminds them of the smaller villages that they were accustomed to in Nepal and Bhutan. Most come from agricultural backgrounds.

“My mom and dad, they were the farmers. We had two cows, and we’d sell milk to people. We raised rice, maize, barley, millet, wheat,” Rudro says. Rudro says he specifically asked for a job in farming.

“We had this one group from Burma. When we brought them to Boise and tried to put them in Wal-Mart or housekeeping jobs, they asked me, ‘Can we move to the Boise foothills and become farmers?’ That’s more like the life they were living before. They will take whatever job they can, but I think in their mind a lot of them would rather work in ag,” says Lana Whiteford, the employment services specialist at the IRC.

Although agriculture is their preferred type of employment, many of the refugees spent many years in refugee camps and find physical work difficult when they start. Milking is the starting job at the dairy, and the refugees have found this to be tiring.

Whiteford says the first week is the most difficult for them because of the physical strain. Another obstacle when starting out is getting used to and learning to use the technology that is used for farming in the U.S.

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“The way of doing the work over here is completely different. We use more olden-type of technology in Nepal. We plowed the field by the ox. We carried the seeds and planted them all like this by hand,” says Rudro, throwing imaginary seeds with both hands.

Communicating can also be a struggle. The Bhutanese learned British English in school while they lived in Nepal, which makes it easier for them to pick it up here.

But many other refugees come without even knowing how to read in their own language. And while working in the milking parlor, English isn’t the only language they’ve encountered.

“For the first times I didn’t understand the Spanish talk. Sometimes they talk in Spanish and not English. The Spanish, a lot of times, they don’t learn English. I learn a little bit of Spanish. I know for the cow they say ‘vaca,’” Naylin, a Burmese refugee, says with a laugh.

Out of necessity the refugees are learning Spanish at the same time they are learning English. Even though it is difficult, they amaze their supervisors at the dairy because of how quickly they’ve been able to do it.

Rose Corral, the human resources manager at Threemile Canyon Farms, tells of how Yosef Ahmed, a refugee from Iraq, goes into the office to pick up his paycheck.

“He flirts with the secretary in Spanish. He has a book of Spanish love phrases he uses. He’ll say things like, ‘Tú es como flor,’ which means ‘You are like a flower,’” she says.

The IRC requires the refugees to go through a three-month English course before going into the workforce. While learning English, they also learn about the American culture.

“The most important thing I learned was how to deal with the American people and about the American culture. It was very necessary because it was not like that in our culture. The American people when they visit they laugh, smile, say hi, hello. In our culture it is not like that. Generally, whenever we would meet other people, we used to go like this,” Mahdav, a Bhutanese native, says while bowing with his palms together in front of him.

Despite the difficulties and changes they’ve faced, the refugees have been successful at Threemile Canyon Farms. Part of their success comes from the kindness and acceptance shown them by the other workers at the dairy.

“The original workers at the dairy made it possible for the refugees to work here,” says Whiteford.

Many of the refugees relied on rides with other workers before they could buy their own cars. The workers also donated furniture and other amenities so the refugees could get settled.

“They have a love for us,” Mahdav says. In return, the refugees work hard and do their best. Whiteford says the supervisors have to hold the refugees back with a stick when there is an extra milking shift to fill. Felipe Caldera, a supervisor at the milking barn, works closely with many of the refugees.

“Looks to me that those guys are happy,” he comments. PD

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