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African migrants fill void at Nebraska plants

An immigration crackdown on Latinos leaves many open jobs at meatpacking centers.

December 23, 2007|Nate Jenkins | Associated Press

LEXINGTON, NEB. — Home is a shabby apartment building on the outskirts of town. Work is the late shift at a meatpacking plant.

This is Degmo Ali's life. And it seems to have been misplaced in this rural town: Dressed in ornate African garb, the graceful 24-year-old is hard to picture on a slaughterhouse floor in Nebraska.

"I want to go back" to Somalia, she says.

Although Ali dreams of returning to the country she fled as a refugee after her father was killed in the political violence that has racked Somalia for nearly two decades, she's comforted by the fact that she is not alone in this town of 10,250 -- far from it. For years, Latino immigrants have moved to small and mid-sized meatpacking towns like Lexington that dot the rural heartland, taking slaughterhouse jobs considered to be some of the most dangerous in the country. Now Africans are coming, drawn by a combination of factors -- from a six-state federal raid that cleared Latino illegal immigrants from packing houses, to word-of-mouth advertising of meatpacking jobs by African refugees who want to flee big U.S. cities.

The change has been jarring at times, coming when towns such as Lexington are still struggling to adapt to the large influx of Latinos. In a poll last year of rural residents by the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, just 14% of respondents said Latin American immigration had been good for rural Nebraska. And immigration from Africa?

"When we first moved here, they used to look at us funny, but it's all right now," said Somali refugee Omar Abib, who works at the Tyson Foods meatpacking plant. The articulate, serious Abib, who has some college education, originally settled in Texas and slaughtered chickens.

He heard about Lexington, like many others, from a friend. He was attracted to the job, cheap living in a quiet town, and the chance to be surrounded by other Somalians.

"It's a good town with good money. The job is hard, but the money is good," Abib said inside a small apartment he shares with several of his countrymen.

Just how many African refugees have moved to Lexington and other meatpacking towns across the Midwest is unclear. But refugee resettlement officials and local immigration specialists say there has been a sharp increase.

A few years ago, Ana Castaneda barely knew what a refugee was. She is an immigration specialist with Lutheran Family Services who helps Lexington immigrants obtain legal status.

"I have more African refugees now than Hispanics" as clients, Castaneda said. "I always thought there would be more Hispanics looking for benefits; it surprised me."

"They start in big cities -- New York, Columbus, Ohio -- and this [Lexington] is really good for them," Castaneda said. "They're kind of afraid of a lot of people and traffic and the freeways; they're not used to that. They don't come from big cities originally; they come from rural areas."

Ali, for example, came to Lexington from Seattle

Conveniences most Americans take for granted are sometimes completely foreign. One problem landlords faced when African refugees began flowing into Lexington: burning wood atop indoor stoves to cook food.

"They may not have seen an automobile or a telephone," said Christine Kutschkau, the state coordinator for refugee resettlement. "Some of our refugees come from very primitive areas."

The rapid change in towns like Lexington has overwhelmed services that immigrants rely on, such as healthcare. Kutschkau said there has been a shortage of medicine for refugees who need to be treated for tuberculosis.

Because of trauma from experiences that drove them from their home countries, many also need mental health services, she said.

The word-of-mouth advertising about Nebraska that is passed among refugees in distant U.S. cities gained steam late last year after Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials raided Swift & Co. meatpacking plants in six states, including the one in Grand Island. The December raids resulted in more than 1,200 arrests. Word of the raids and open jobs encouraged many refugees to come to Nebraska. And the new and growing population is self-perpetuating: As more Africans live in rural Nebraska, more Africans may come to live alongside them.

Some, however, have lived the life of Ali long enough to aspire to more than long days in a small-town slaughterhouse.

Asha Mohamed, a fresh-faced, charismatic young woman who moved to Lexington from Minneapolis, dreams of going to California, maybe New York.

Of her life now, she said, "It's too hard."

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