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Refugees from Burma settling in for work at Jennie-O store

Mon Ku Boung, a Burmese refugee, speaks to a translator about the move he and his wife have made to Willmar. Tribune photo by Linda Vanderwerf

WILLMAR -- Housing and transportation appear to be among the largest obstacles for settling in Willmar for two dozen Burmese refugees who moved here in recent months.

The refugees came to Willmar to work for Jennie-O Turkey Store.

Nine of the refugees met with community representatives in Willmar this week to talk about challenges they face and the community services that might be available to them.

Emerge, a non-profit community development organization based in Minneapolis, is working with Jennie-O through Emerge's Refugee Employment Services program.

Emerge has worked with a number of meat-packing plants in recent years, said Director Paul Schulz at the meeting.

The plants are interested in attracting a stable workforce that is in the country legally, he said. Refugees fit the bill, because of the extensive paperwork done to achieve refugee status.

It's a good opportunity for the refuges, too, because it allows them to build work experience while they learn English and adjust to life in the United States, Schulz said.

Most of the refugees in Willmar are Karen (kah-RIN), an oppressed minority in Burma, and they are predominantly Baptist. The Karen and other groups have left Burma, also called Myanmar, during more than 50 years of war in the country. Many spent time in refugee camps before coming to the United States.

So far, most of the Burmese people in Willmar are adults. One family with one child has also made the move. Many of the adults hope to move their families here from St. Paul eventually.

Forty-five people first moved to Willmar, but half already left, Schulz said. Some didn't like the work, and others missed their families.

In addition to help provided by Jennie-O, Emerge contracted with Goodwill Industries in Willmar to assist the refugees. Emerge also sent Burmese workforce coach Htet Lin to Willmar. Htet is also an ordained Baptist minister.

Refugees receive some cash assistance and food assistance when they first arrive in the country. They can receive public assistance under the same rules and limits that apply to citizens. Often, they go off public assistance once they are working.

Schulz said all involved want to make this transition work for the refugees, and "we don't want to put a burden on the local community."

The group at the meeting discussed some of the refugees' needs. Local organizations represented at the meeting included Goodwill, the First Baptist Church and Willmar Public Schools.

The available rental housing is sometimes the wrong size for the families, the refugees said.

"The landlords are willing to work with us," said Ben Larson, an AmeriCorps worker helping the refugees. He often gets a call when there's a vacancy, he added.

First Baptist pastors the Rev. Phil Lutz and the Rev. Gary Esbolt welcomed the refugees and offered to do what they could to help. After the meeting, Lutz spoke with Htet to invite the refugees to come to church services.

A group of the Burmese in Willmar is sharing one vehicle, and most don't have driver's licenses yet. Shelly Huseby of Goodwill suggested that bus tokens and training about using Kandiyohi Area Transit could be helpful for them.

Beckie Simenson, assistant principal at Willmar Middle School, told the parents at the meeting that the district is experienced in working with children of immigrants. "We have terrific ELL (English Language Learner) teachers," she said. "I want you to feel good about the transition for your children."

Simenson and other school representatives said their biggest challenge would be finding employees who could act as translators and cultural liaisons.

Jim Nicholson, director of Adult Basic Education in Willmar, told the group about the free English classes offered by the program. A few have already attended classes.

Some of the refugees have limited English skills, while a few speak it quite well. One person is considering starting classes at Ridgewater College.

The meeting ended with some advice for the refugees from Mohamed Ali, a supervisor with Emerge. He told them that he was in their position 18 years ago, when he came to the United States with his children.

"Go to school, for yourself and your children," he said. "Talk to your neighbors, assimilate, go to the grocery store, meet people -- don't close yourself in; go out."

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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