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Dairy community welcomes refugees to new home

Alisa Anderson Published on 30 October 2009

“This is not going to happen in a vacuum. We’re not going to just decide to keep sending and sending refugees to Boardman,” Claudia Conner said. Conner, a director at the International Rescue Committee, made this comment at a community meeting in Boardman, Oregon.

The meeting was arranged so that community leaders, Threemile Canyon Farms and the IRC could work together to insure the success and comfort of 27 refugees who have come to work at the Threemile Canyon Farms dairy. It has become apparent to all that the community needs to be more involved in the transition of these new arrivals.

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“As these refugees come, they have an eagerness and a hunger to learn the language and be a part of America – to be one of us, basically,” says Joel Chavez, director of the ESL programs in the Boardman area.

The meeting focused on just that – how to help the refugees become a part of the community. The refugees who are working at the dairy have come from Burma, Uganda, Bhutan, Nepal and Iraq. They were brought to the U.S. and put in the care of the IRC, which helped place them in their current jobs.

A few of them have brought their families to Boardman. Some are starting to buy their own cars and homes. One of them was recently married. All of them need help being integrated into a culture they are not familiar with.

“Just think back. Most of our roots came from immigrants and refugees. I encourage you to think about your ancestors and reach out to these refugees,” Lana Whiteford, the employment services specialist at the IRC, said at the meeting.

Diane Whorf, the executive director of the Boardman chamber of commerce, has already begun to come up with ideas to make the refugees feel more welcome.

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“I’ve talked about involving them even if it’s just in our silly little Fourth of July community event. But if we could have them as a part of it, even if it is just in the talent show, then they get to share their culture and we get to enjoy it. That will let everybody at the Fourth of July event learn just a little bit more about somebody from Nepal or Burma,” she says.

One hindrance to integration is the refugees’ inability to speak English well. In every ethnic group at the dairy, there is at least one person who can speak English well and will translate for the others. But that person is not always there when needed.

The management at the dairy has tried to help this situation by offering English classes. This was originally started to help their Spanish employees communicate with supervisors and other workers. But since they started hiring refugees, they’ve adapted the classes to meet their needs.

“The turnout has been disappointing. I think most of it is that they just don’t want to go to class after being at work for 10 hours. But we’re optimistic they’ll learn,” says Walt Guterbock, the livestock manager at Threemile Canyon Farms.

Among other things, the local school district has been working to teach the children English.

“We have a good ESL program that helps children learn English quickly and assimilate into the mainstream academic program. We have a program where we seek to integrate children into all areas of Morrow County education,” Chavez says.

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Part of integration is learning the laws of the country. This was one concern that was brought up at the meeting by the Morrow County Sheriff’s department and Boardman Chief of Police John Zeiler.

“We need more communication between us. The refugees need to understand our laws, our way of doing things. I understand that it’s not their fault. We’ve had no problems with them, except driving. A lot of it is they don’t understand, and some of them have never driven a car before,” Zeiler says.

The inability to communicate with many of the refugees was also a concern for the hospital and other health care services. In response, the IRC provided a list of contact information for the refugees that spoke English well enough to translate. They are also working with the police to set up training about laws for the refugees.

“For the most part, I believe the community has accepted them pretty well. For some of the older community, it’s kind of unknown. But we’ve had no problems, and I think everyone is accepting them. I think it’s great, myself,” Zeiler says.

Whorf mentioned at the meeting that the lack of an increasing workforce had been limiting Boardman’s growth, therefore making the refugees all the more welcome.

“I’m excited to have new diversity and growth in the community. We’re glad that they’ve found good jobs and that they have adequate housing. We will be ready to receive them and their families and expand the diversity that we have been accustomed to, which has basically been Hispanic and Anglo,” Chavez says. PD

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