For Some Idaho Refugees, the Search for a Job Ends at Dairy Operation in Rural Oregon

Jessie L. Bonner, Los Angeles Times, August 14, 2010

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There is little the International Rescue Committee, an Idaho-based refugee agency, can do to prepare its Third World clients for the vastness of the operation that is Oregon’s largest dairy. But the 93,000-acre complex has provided steady jobs in a recession that makes it difficult for even highly educated refugees fluent in English to get hired.

Conversely, with the immigration status of industrial farmworkers across the nation coming into sharper focus, legal political refugees offer another option for employers.

Shiwakoti, 21, started the day with tearful good-byes to his mother and sister in the parking lot of their Boise apartment complex. {snip}

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His family fled Bhutan under threat of death, left the Nepalese refugee camp for a better life in America, and traded their new life in Arizona for the cheaper cost of living in Idaho.

And here, in rural northeastern Oregon, the refugee group had found employment for Shiwakoti, his dad and six other refugees at the giant dairy in the Columbia River Basin. {snip}

Shiwakoti and his father, 48-year-old Bhola Shiwakoti, went to the Boise office of the International Rescue Committee seeking help several weeks ago–but they didn’t anticipate this.

“Boise just started bleeding jobs,” said Lana Whiteford, a hiring specialist for International Rescue. “Hotels and restaurants just didn’t need us anymore.”

A livestock manager at Threemile Canyon Farms heard about the refugees’ employment plight on public radio two years ago and contacted Whiteford. Since January 2009, she has helped about 45 refugees get jobs at Threemile Canyon and find affordable housing in nearby Boardman.

The dairy with a predominantly Hispanic work force now employees refugees who escaped political and ethnic persecution in Burma, Sudanese who fled genocide, Iraqis who were forced to leave their war-torn country for both religious and political reasons and Somalis who left their country because of ongoing strife and bloodshed.

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The men joined a third refugee from Nepali, two men from Burma and three from Somalia in this latest group ferried on the four-hour drive through rural eastern Oregon countryside.

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The work is difficult, and for the first two weeks their shoulders will most likely ache with soreness, said Ibraham Hassan, a 34-year-old from Darfur who has been working at the dairy for four months.

There is a simplicity to the lifestyle, Hassan said, the repetition of getting up every morning and driving 20 miles to the dairy, coming home to shower and eat and then going to bed. But he misses living in a city, hearing conversations in English.

“Here, it’s all in Spanish,” Hassan said.

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The International Rescue Committee has gone to great lengths to facilitate the refugees’ presence at the dairy, securing housing and transportation them.

Even so, there was initial backlash to their presence in Oregon. Threemile Canyon Farms was asked why the dairy was taking on refugee employees when the Portland unemployment rate had climbed into the double digits, said human resources manager Rose Corral. She said she told critics they should apply for the jobs if they didn’t want refugees to take them.

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