Refugees see American dream down on the farm

By Alexandra Zavis
Sunday, September 26, 2010; A12

LOS ANGELES - 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 has a wife, 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, 30, 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.

Rai applied for jobs as a waiter, a janitor and a cashier. When his federal cash assistance ran out after four months, he had no job offers. For the first time, Rai wondered if he had made a terrible mistake. How would he support his family?

That's when a career adviser told him about a dairy near Boardman, Ore., that hires refugees.

One day in late 2008, Walt Guterbock, the 65-year-old livestock manager at Threemile Canyon Farms, was listening to NPR on his truck radio when a report caught his attention. It featured refugees who had escaped wars and ethnic strife only to struggle to find work in Boise.

Their plight resonated with Guterbock, whose parents fled Nazi Germany, eventually settling in Chicago. The farm where he works was having a hard time filling 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.

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.

Where the jobs are

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, Calif., had never heard of Boardman, Ore. Then an e-mail from Threemile Canyon Farms landed in her inbox.

She learned that the farm was a five-hour drive from Boise. Agencies such as the International Rescue Committee, contracted by the government to help resettle refugees, usually 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 drove 10 refugees to Boardman to take a look. They set off before dawn, traveling 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 35,000 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.

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.

Language barrier

Since last year, the farm has hired about 50 refugees, all new to commercial farming and from countries as varied as Iraq, Burma 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 percent of the 300-strong full-time workforce is Spanish-speaking, and few of the refugees speak much English.

The farm offers free English lessons, but most refugees find they are too tired to study after working 9½-hour or longer days. After a few months, some say they speak better Spanish.

The arrival of the refugees fuel-ed fears among the workforce 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."

On the other hand, 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 nationwide interested in doing the same kind of thing.

Small-town life

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.

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.

- Los Angeles Times

© 2010 The Washington Post Company