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Burmese refugees flock to Iowa meatpacking town

Sunday - 5/5/2013, 12:57pm  ET

Columbus Junction, Iowa Mayor Dan Wilson speaks during an informational city council meeting on rental housing codes, in Columbus Junction, Iowa on Wednesday, April 17, 2013. "We’ve had a lot of experience with Hispanic cultures, but for all of us, the Burmese thing is new. There’s no one around that is an expert in that area or knows the language or this and that. That whole transition has been interesting," said Wilson, a businessman who grew up on a farm outside town. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

RYAN J. FOLEY
Associated Press

COLUMBUS JUNCTION, Iowa (AP) -- The first Chin Burmese student arrived at Wilma Sime Roundy Elementary School three years ago, a smiling preschooler whose father often checked on his progress.

The school had long been accustomed to educating the children of the Mexicans, Hondurans and Salvadorans who came to work at the sprawling Tyson Foods pork processing plant that sits outside this town of 2,000. But then, principal Shane Rosenberg recalled, Tyson informed school leaders that a new group of workers was coming -- the Chin, a largely Christian ethnic minority who were fleeing their homeland in western Myanmar to avoid persecution.

A trickle of Chin students turned into dozens. Frustrated educators struggled to communicate, often having to call the pastor of the Chin church to interpret. Rosenberg intervened to ease the way, using grant money to hire one of the Chin to translate to and from the Hakha language. And he invited Chin parents for a welcoming ceremony and tour of the school.

"It was an awe-inspiring moment, for them to see the opportunities their children were going to have by being here in school," he said.

All told, about 400 refugees have descended on the town, and more are arriving by the week to reunite with friends and relatives and work grueling jobs for Tyson. Like other waves of immigrants, they were drawn to this poor, sparsely populated region of southeastern Iowa by the promise of jobs, good schools and welcoming people.

And as was the case with other waves of immigrants, there have been bumps along the way.

"We've had a lot of experience with Hispanic cultures, but for all of us, the Burmese thing is new. There's no one around that is an expert in that area or knows the language or this and that. That whole transition has been interesting," said Mayor Dan Wilson, a businessman who grew up on a farm outside town. He said the influx has been more easily noticed in Columbus Junction than elsewhere: "It's more obvious in a small town when you've got 200 new people coming in. You're not going to blend in here. You're going to stick out."

But Columbus Junction is working it out, and has been transformed in many ways by these newcomers, who have brought an energy and optimism that longtime residents call remarkable.

A Chin grocery store has opened downtown, on a block dominated by Mexican businesses, selling huge bags of the rice that is a staple in their diet. Not long ago, its owner was living in the Malaysian jungle after fleeing Myanmar. The Iowa Chin Baptist Church holds Sunday services for more than 300 members at a Methodist church that agreed to share its space. A community college is adding a building to expand the availability of ESL classes, which are in high demand.

"In any small town, you're always looking at: what is the future of this town going to be? And having a large group of people with young children, saying 'we'd like to live here and open some businesses,' that's very reassuring," said city community development director Mallory Smith, who helped residents open the first Chin store and restaurant and rent space for a community garden. "We're a young, growing town, which is very nice."

Biak Thang, 28, left his job working 10-hour days at Tyson to work as the school interpreter, which he calls a "big, big, big job" even if he took a pay cut.

"I feel that this is a good privilege that I get. I have a chance to help the kids and the parents in a time of need," he said.

He fled Myanmar to Malaysia in 2005 to avoid religious persecution and military rule that prevented gathering after 9 p.m. After being accepted to resettle in the United States, he left for North Carolina in 2008, where he worked at a furniture factory. He was reunited there with his wife, who had been jailed for six months after illegally entering Thailand.

"When I got here, I felt relief. Everything is new for me. It's a new beginning of life," Thang says.

The couple moved to Columbus Junction in 2011 and are raising two children. Thang looks forward to becoming a U.S. citizen: "It's a freedom country. I can be whatever I want."

Tyson and other meatpacking companies have increasingly recruited non-Latino workers in recent years, including Burmese, Sudanese and others, said Mark Grey, director of the Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration at University of Northern Iowa. Since a 2008 raid of a Postville, Iowa, slaughterhouse, where 389 immigrants were arrested, companies have become more careful to avoid hiring employees who may have entered the country illegally, he said.

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