Refugees from Myanmar are creating a second chance for themselves in small-town Nebraska, with the help of meat-processing giant Tyson Foods and the local Chamber of Commerce. For the city of Norfolk, it’s just the latest wave of immigrants, who have arrived from places as diverse as Somalia, the Sudan and Latin America.
The three Karenni women sit on the floral-patterned couch intently watching a beaver sing the alphabet and name off words that start with corresponding letters, while a dark-haired toddler rolls around on the floor fiddling with a red plastic gun.
“E – eh – elevator,” the beaver sings. “ E – eh – egg.”
The Busy Beaver educational song is to teach 2-year-old Phillip Rae the English alphabet. But it also has the attention of the three Karenni – a people from the southern part of Burma – sitting on the couch. Only one, 17-year-old Maria Boe, can speak very much English. And she’s still in ELL classes at Norfolk High School.
The three women are stoic as they watch the Beaver sing. This is how they will spend their Thursday night. Maybe a little homework later for Maria Boe and her cousin U Meh, also 17. Maybe a little time surfing the Internet. Dey Meh, Phillip’s 26-year-old mother, will definitely have to fill his bottle and change his diaper.
This is the life of these Karenni women at dusk since they moved to Norfolk a couple months ago. The men and the other two women in the microscopic 18-person refugee community are off working a shift at the nearby Tyson pork plant in Madison, Neb., that starts in the early afternoon and gets off at midnight.
These people are here in search of a better life. And so far, the three months in Norfolk, a city with approximately 25,000 people, have proved better than the life they left behind in a refugee camp in Thailand.
“We like it here because there is more here for us,” Maria Boe said.
The Karenni workers were recruited in Des Moines, Iowa, by Tyson foods to work at the plant because Tyson couldn’t find enough workers locally. Tyson is working to make sure its investment in the refugees bears fruit.
The Karenni fled Burma for the same reasons as many other refugees from the nation now known as Myanmar. The current government has attacked villages full of minority groups in an effort to drive them out of the country. Rapes and murders by the army are commonplace in a nation that is also riddled with landmines. Economic stability is nearly impossible in the region, and many of the Burmese are forced to flee to refugee camps in Thailand, even though it, too, is experiencing some unrest.
Many have come to the United States in search of safety and jobs.
Tyson has concentrated on making sure the Karenni have everything they need, including the services of translators and education about the area. Back in September, as the Karenni were preparing to start their jobs, Tyson officials organized a meeting with various community leaders from Norfolk and Madison. They wanted to get across to the providers of basic services that the company would provide a translator if one was needed, and that people such as police officers and hospital workers should be ready for an influx of new people.
Michelle Johnson is the director of a Norfolk Chamber of Commerce initiative called GROW Norfolk that seeks to expand the city. She said the meeting made her want to see what she and the rest of the chamber could do to help the Karenni and also served as a reminder of how the community could help these new residents adapt to life in Norfolk, on top of what Tyson is already doing.
“There are just a lot of little things, like not knowing how to get on an elevator or how to push the button, little things we take for granted because that’s how we grew up,” Johnson said.
All of the refugees in Norfolk so far are secondary migrants who’ve lived in the United States for several years, recruited from Des Moines, Iowa, so not knowing how to use an elevator shouldn’t be a problem. However, English is still an issue in the classroom for the two 17-year-olds.
“Things would not be going so well if it weren’t for Tyson,” said Doug Witte, associate superintendent of Student Services for Norfolk Public Schools. “And the two Burmese students are hardworking and eager to learn.”
Tyson has supplied a translator, Dey Meh’s husband, Nene Rae, for the two girls. Nene Rae will work with the two cousins for a couple hours before he heads down to Madison to work at the plant.
For the rest of the day, the girls are in English-speaking classes.
“We try to get them into as many English speaking classes as possible to help them with the language,” Witte said.
Maria Boe says she and her cousin have learned more English since arriving in Norfolk. She also feels like she’s learning more at school than when she lived in Des Moines. However, she’s mostly only made friends with the Mexican students in her school.
“I think they know more about what it’s like,” she said. “The other students don’t really talk to me.”
This isn’t Norfolk’s first experience with foreign workers. Hispanics moved into the area in the early 1990s to work in meat packing and as farmhands. They’re now so engrained in the community that Mexican restaurants dot Johnny Carson Boulevard and a business’ hours of operation are frequently printed in Spanish on storefronts.
In the mid-2000s Norfolk’s own Tyson beef plant became a recruiting tool for Somali and Sudanese refugees to come get jobs in the area. At that time, it was tricky for public officials to communicate
Different traditions often made it difficult for the African refugees, who were recruited by Tyson to work at Norfolk’s beef plant until it shut down in 2006, to adjust to the community. In fact, the cultural separations probably portrayed these refugees in a different light than any group before them, according to Norfolk Police Chief Bill Mizner.
He said the police worked with the refugees, trying to help them understand some differences in laws in America. “Many of (the refugees) had a different view of things like, for example, domestic abuse,” Mizner said.
The police also worked with the people on education. However, public perceptions of the group weren’t always positive because of a lack of understanding of cultural differences. The problem disappeared when many of refugees left after the Tyson plant shut down.
The Norfolk Daily News decided it wanted to jump out ahead of the issue this time around with a series of stories to educate the local population before the Burmese refugees arrived, said Kent Warneke, the paper’s editor, and Jerry Guenther, a reporter who helped work on a series about the refugees.
“We wanted to make sure people knew who these people were,” Warneke said.
The Daily News published a three-day series in late September featuring profiles and informational sidebars about the traditions and culture of the Burmese people.
The goal was to introduce the newcomers to people already in Norfolk so that the presence of a new group wouldn’t have a negative effect on the community.
“Because when people don’t know things it can make them nervous,” Guenther said.
Back inside the apartment, the beaver continues to sing and the women contemplate their futures as Phillip sucks milk from a plastic bottle. His mother, Dey Meh, really wants to learn English. U Meh, his aunt, quietly hopes she can learn the language, too. Improving their language skills could open up so many possibilities around town, such being able to set up appointments or finding out where the local park is.
Meanwhile, the women’s cousin Maria Boe translates for them.
“We like it, but we get bored,” Dey Meh says through Maria Boe.
Dey Meh laughs as she lets out the smooth Karenni phrases. Then a stoic look returns, and she glances back toward the television. Her humorous words aren’t understandable to 99 percent of the town. It’s hard because the group only has each other. They even have to go to Omaha if they want to get authentic Asian cuisine.
But that can change, Maria Boe says. Other members of her family will be moving to Norfolk soon, and she thinks Karenni friends should be on their way soon.
“There are more of us coming,” Maria Boe with a smile. “And hopefully that will make things even better.”
Robby Korth is journalism student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This article was reported and written as part of his capstone course, Nebraska Mosaic, in which upper-level journalism students cover Nebraska’s growing refugee communities. More articles can be found at www.nemosaic.org.