Learning English key for slaughterhouse workers

Oct 30, 2013

Three days a week, First Baptist Church in Noel, Mo., becomes a school for about 100 immigrants and refugees who work at the Tyson poultry plant. English language and citizenship classes are held in four small rooms in a building behind the church. One of the youngest students here, Soe Soe, is an 18-year-old Burmese refugee who debones chicken at the plant from 4:30 PM until 2 or 3 each morning.

“I really don’t like it. I’d like to go to school and learn more English. But I have problems, like nobody working in my house, nobody paying for rent,” he said.

There is no shortage of refugees like Soe Soe in this tiny remote town who probably should be in high school but are instead working at the Tyson poultry plant to support their families. For them, the free English classes being offered at the church are a lifeline. Soe Soe hopes they will give him the English skills he needs to one day leave the plant and become a translator, doctor, nurse or hotel worker.

“I speak Karen, Burmese, Thai. I need more English,” he said.

In the past several decades, tens of thousands of refugees and immigrants have settled in rural towns across America to slaughter, cut, debone and pack meat -- from chicken, to beef, to pork. Often these meatpacking plants are keeping small towns alive. But, as Peggy Lowe and I found out in the reporting for our “In the Shadows of the Slaughterhouse” series, some towns like Noel are struggling to provide the services needed for diverse populations of immigrants and their children.

Crowder College has English language classes at the local housing authority three days a week.  Earlier this year at the Noel Tyson plant, instruction was also being offered. But that was not sufficient for the newest refugee plant workers with little to no English. So in July, Crowder College Adult Literacy and Education began to provide classes for plant workers. First Baptist Church donated space for classes and offered to pay utilities. Crowder's Juli DeNisco dubbed the classes the Resettlement Educational Assistance Project because the majority of the students are refugees who have moved from large cities to Noel to work at the Tyson plant.

“I had no idea the numbers that were already living and working there and that needed English,” said DeNisco. “I was surprised. Until Kara came to my door, I had no idea.”

By Kara, DeNisco means Kara Ketema, one of Crowder's teachers at the First Baptist Church school. When she approached DeNisco, she was teaching English as a second language at Noel Primary School and – because she speaks Somali – was helping her Somali students’ parents with English after school.  In 2009, Ketema remembers having just 34 students on her roster. When she left the school this summer to work for Crowder, that number had surged to more than 100.

“There were quite a few Somalis there, Hispanics have been steady … the Pacific Islanders have increased in number as well,” she said. “The Burmese started coming in October or November, last year.”

Teachers use Rosetta Stone to aid English instruction. Volunteers also lend a hand with the classes and Crowder is looking for more to help. The students are age 18 to 70. Classes are offered Tuesday and Thursday mornings and afternoons to accommodate night shift workers, and on Sunday nights.

Crowder tries to break up classes with cultural exchanges since these students come from all over the globe. Today, for example, students have brought in home-made food to share. The menu includes spicy samosas, soft rice noodles, lasagna and chai.

“Sometimes I feel my rooms are segregated or certain people won’t come because the other group is present,” said teacher Shelby Philip. “So trying to get the cultures to understand, ‘Hey, we’re here for the same purposes. Maybe what’s going on in my home country is different than yours, but we have some commonalities. I don’t like the food here and neither do you. I don’t know the language and neither do you. I don’t understand why they put hotdogs between bread and neither do you.’”

Teachers here also do their best to help students learn basic survival skills, like how to turn on faucets, use debit cards and learn to drive.

“I have a student who’s pregnant now. She was two months along and she hadn’t been to the doctor. And she’s like, ‘I can’t go, I don’t have insurance,’” said Philip. “Well, let’s figure out how to get you Medicaid.”

But the main reason students are showing up here is English. Burmese refugee Pah Soe says that’s a requirement for living in Noel.

“When I go to [an] appointment for my baby, I have to talk to doctors,” she said.

At the Tyson plant where her husband is a translator, there are at least a dozen different languages spoken, from Somali to Spanish to Chukese, which is spoken primarily in Micronesia.

“They cannot communicate,” Pah Soe said. “They use body language.”

A 25-year-old Sudanese refugee here, Abdelwahab Sulaiman, moved to Noel from Hartford, Conn., this summer to work at the Tyson plant. He wishes English classes were offered more than three days a week.

“I want to work and learn and study English and go to college,” Sulaiman said. “Here in Noel, there are no colleges. So I want to stay six months or more to work here and then go to Kansas City to keep studying.”

More from this series: In the Shadows of the Slaughterhouse