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Refugees find the American dream down on the farm

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

“It’s an injection?” he asked.

Since last year, the farm has hired about 50 refugees, all new to commercial farming and from countries as varied as Iraq, Myanmar and Sudan.

Rose Corral, the farm’s human resources director, says most have proved to be dedicated workers. The main challenge is communication. About 80% of the 300-strong workforce is Spanish-speaking. Few of the refugees speak much English, either.

The farm offers free English lessons, but most refugees find they are too tired to study after working 9 1/2-hour and longer days. After a few months, some say they speak better Spanish.

Concerned that there could be friction, the farm invited a consultant to do a presentation on religious and cultural differences. At the end of the session, Corral recalled, one longtime employee said she understood why the refugees were there.

“They are here to work and make money because there are problems in their country,” Maria Raquel Jaime, 50, repeated recently while attaching suction cups to cows’ udders as they passed on a revolving carousel. “I’m here for the same reason.”

Many workers have tried to help the newcomers, offering to share food and rides. They collected nearly $3,000 for the widow and children of a Somali man, who was killed shortly after he was hired last year when the car he was riding in crashed into two other vehicles.

But the arrival of more refugees fueled fears that the company wanted to replace its Latino workers.

“A lot of people have been asking what is going to happen to them now that they are bringing in all these refugees,” said Francisco Hernandez, 40, who has worked in the milking parlors for five years. “I train these workers, and when we have trained them enough, maybe the company will say they don’t need me anymore.”

But some refugees complain that they are passed over for advancement in favor of Latinos.

Farm managers say the fears on both sides are unfounded. They say the refugees are filling a labor gap. Some have already progressed to driving trucks and working in breeding.

“I consider it to be a success story for both them and for us,” said Corral, who has received calls from dairies around the country interested in doing the same kind of thing.

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Within a few months of starting at Threemile Canyon Farms, some refugees decided to move their families to Boardman, an agricultural processing hub on the Columbia River surrounded by bleached fields and whining wind farms. A local onion plant has also started hiring refugees.

Whiteford, of the refugee resettlement agency, wondered how such a diverse group would fit in to a tiny rural town where they make up about 140 of the 3,400 residents.

“I really held my breath,” she said.

Some residents had misgivings, especially after the deadly car crash, which was blamed on a refugee who had tried to overtake another vehicle on a hill. How were law enforcement officials to communicate with the refugees?, they asked. Others worried there could be terrorists among them.

A public meeting was called. Whiteford explained the rigorous screening that refugees go through before being admitted to the United States. She also offered to supply the authorities with emergency contact numbers for translators.

Jerry Johnson, a 63-year-old retired firefighter who serves on the Boardman City Council, was impressed.

“These are the immigrants we need, like the refugees in World War II. They make our country a better country,” he said. “I just have a problem with the illegals that we have.”

The only problem has been finding housing for the refugees. Most Boardman workers commute from larger cities. But that can be difficult in winter, when extreme weather closes many roads.

So the refugees pack into shared apartments at a complex where ethnic Nepalese women in long, vibrant skirts sit cross-legged on the lawn and a former mechanic from Togo tinkers with a troublesome car.

For some, this is just the nice, quiet place to raise children. But rural life isn’t for all of them.

“Boring,” pronounced Alnoor Fadul, a 27-year-old from Sudan in dreadlocks and jeans. “Just home, work, shopping.”

Fadul last saw his parents and seven siblings in 2005, when government troops and allied militiamen attacked their village in the Darfur region. He did not know whether they survived until this year, when he heard from fellow refugees that they had made it to a camp in neighboring Chad.

He is sending them money. When he has saved enough, he wants to go back to Boise to finish high school and study law. Several other refugees he knows from the farm are starting college in the fall.

Regardless of whether they stay, this quiet agrarian community offers them something many refugees can’t find elsewhere: the chance to become self-sufficient.

After showering off the muck from work, Rai, from Bhutan, gladly shows off his new trailer home’s modern kitchen and bathroom, the computer glowing in the living room and the patch of green lawn where his son likes to play. It is the first home he has ever owned, and it was bought with money he earned at the farm.

“It completely changed my life,” he said.

alexandra.zavis@latimes.com


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