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Refugees find the American dream down on the farm

They come from such places as Bhutan, Myanmar and Somalia, all fleeing some form of strife and all looking for a way to fit in. A rural Oregon dairy in need of workers offers an opportunity.

August 26, 2010|By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times

A dingy floral print peels from the walls, and sheets of plastic are taped over some of the windows. But for Harka Rai, the sagging trailer home he bought in rural Oregon is his piece of the American dream.

Rai, who is married with a 4-year-old son and another child on the way, was just a boy when new citizenship laws forced his ethnic Nepalese family out of Bhutan. For 18 years, they waited in a refugee camp in Nepal, hoping to return home.

"We built a bamboo house," he said. "The dust comes inside. The rain comes inside. And when the wind comes, we hang onto the roof to keep it from blowing away."

Desperate to escape the camp, Rai accepted an offer from the U.S. government last year to be resettled in Boise, Idaho. But by then, the country was in the throes of recession.

Rai applied for jobs as a waiter, janitor and cashier. But when his federal cash assistance ran out after four months, he had no job offers. For the first time, the 30-year-old Rai wondered if he had made a terrible mistake. How would he support his family?

That's when a career advisor told him about a dairy near Boardman, Ore., that hires refugees.

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Walt Guterbock, the 65-year-old livestock manager at Threemile Canyon Farms, was listening to NPR on his truck radio one day in late 2008 when a report caught his attention. It featured refugees who had escaped wars and ethnic strife only to struggle to find work in Boise.

Their plight resonated with Guterbock, whose parents fled Nazi Germany, eventually settling in Chicago. The farm where he works was struggling to fill vacancies in two milking parlors.

"Almost no native-born Americans … apply for these jobs," Guterbock said. "It's a tough, dirty, demanding job."

Most applicants were originally from Mexico, and the Social Security numbers they provided weren't checking out. The farm won't hire illegal immigrants.

Because of more aggressive enforcement of immigration laws, many large agricultural businesses like Threemile Canyon Farms are in a quandary.

More than 40% of dairy workers and nearly 80% of hired crop growers were born outside the United States, according to studies by the National Milk Producers Federation and the U.S. Department of Labor. But attempts to legalize the many undocumented workers have met with fierce resistance from those who argue that it would encourage illegal immigration.

High-profile raids, such as one that netted 389 illegal workers at a Kosher meat-processing plant in Postville, Iowa, in 2008, have sent a chill through rural communities that rely on immigrant labor.

Guterbock, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, approached his farm's human resources director with the idea of hiring refugees.

"It just seemed like a good thing to do, besides being good for business," Guterbock said.

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In Boise, Lana Whiteford, a 27-year-old employment specialist with the International Rescue Committee, was struggling to find work for refugees. Over her year in the position, she had watched as the office went from placing six or seven refugees in service and factory jobs each week to placing none for weeks at a time.

"I had this major gnawing guilt," she said. "We had people receive eviction letters."

Whiteford, who grew up in Anaheim, had never heard of Boardman, Ore. Then an e-mail from Threemile Canyon Farms landed in her inbox. "I Googled it," she said.

She learned that the farm was a five-hour drive from Boise. Agencies like the International Rescue Committee, contracted by the government to help resettle refugees, look for jobs that are closer to their offices, so they can assist with housing, education and other needs. But these were extraordinary times.

So she hired a van and took 10 refugees to Boardman to take a look. They set off before dawn, driving through barren fields, thick fog and snow. Although most of the refugees had rural backgrounds, none had ever seen so many cows.

About 20,000 cows are milked every day at Threemile Canyon Farms, said General Manager Marty Myers. They are housed in half-mile-long barns. Waste from the dairy is used to fertilize 37,000 acres of irrigated farmland.

The refugees were told that the farm is unionized, salaries start at $9.45 an hour, and health insurance is provided. In Boise, they could expect to earn about $7.50 an hour with no benefits, and most jobs are part-time, Whiteford said.

All but one of the refugees decided to work at the farm. Now, when there are vacancies that can't be filled locally, the farm calls Whiteford.

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One recent morning, breeding expert Frank Toledo was trying to explain the benefits of artificial insemination to eight new hires.

"Where are the bulls?" asked Abdikadir Abdi, a lanky 22-year-old from Somalia.

Toledo produced an insemination rod for the group to inspect.

"There is not one bull in the place," he said.

Bhola Shiwakoti, a 48-year-old father from Bhutan who had brought his 21-year-old son to work with him, stared quizzically at the long, slender object in Toledo's hand.

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