Members of the local Karen community attend a Sunday worship service in a Stoney Creek Estates trailer July 13. About 75 people attend the service each week, and Tha Htaw hopes to take down a wall within the trailer to provide more room. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune
Members of the local Karen community attend a Sunday worship service in a Stoney Creek Estates trailer July 13. About 75 people attend the service each week, and Tha Htaw hopes to take down a wall within the trailer to provide more room. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

Archived Story

Special Report: Seeking Refuge, Part 2

Published 11:14am Monday, July 21, 2014

Opportunities give hope for a better life

Refugees struggle with language, find solace through worship

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series about refugees living in Albert Lea. 

Members of the local South Sudanese community sing during a Sunday worship service at First Presbyterian Church. The service is completely in Nuer, the language of the Sudanese tribe of the same name. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune
Members of the local South Sudanese community sing during a Sunday worship service at First Presbyterian Church. The service is completely in Nuer, the language of the Sudanese tribe of the same name. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

They meet each Sunday afternoon in a trailer on the south side of Albert Lea, purchased as a church through donations of its members.

Painted blue both inside and out, the trailer serves as a gathering place for young and old alike in the Karen community to worship in their native tongue.

Pah Mu speaks during a Karen Sunday worship service July 17. Mu had a paste made from tree bark on her face to keep her cool and to protect her skin from the sun, she said through an interpreter. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune
Pah Mu speaks during a Karen Sunday worship service July 17. Mu had a paste made from tree bark on her face to keep her cool and to protect her skin from the sun, she said through an interpreter. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

Hung on one wall is a picture of Jesus Christ; on another is a Bible verse. On other walls are artificial flowers hung as decorations.

Tha Htaw, 57, who attends the service, said Karen families from both Albert Lea and Clarks Grove — along with others visiting family — attend the service. On any given week there could be as many as 75 in attendance.

The people sit on metal chairs or on mats placed on the floor and go out of their way each week to welcome anyone new to the service. Because of the growing attendance, Htaw said he and others hope to someday knock out a wall in the trailer to accommodate more people.

A child plays with his mother during a Sudanese worship service Sunday at First Presbyterian Church. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune
A child plays with his mother during a Sudanese worship service Sunday at First Presbyterian Church. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

Across town at First Presbyterian and Zion Lutheran churches, similar groups of Sudanese refugees worship.

The churches stand as sanctuaries from the world outside, where many of the refugees struggle to communicate with others and try to acclimate to American culture.

 

Reaching into the dark

Growing up without things such as electricity, Sudanese refugee Dabang Gach said it is an adjustment to get used to things such as lights, stoves and other appliances.

Perhaps the largest challenge, however, is the challenge that comes from limited or sometimes the nonexistent ability to speak English.

The younger children tend to sit on the floor towards the front of the trailer during Sunday worship services for the Karen community, due to a lack of chair space and so that they can keep each other occupied. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune
The younger children tend to sit on the floor towards the front of the trailer during Sunday worship services for the Karen community, due to a lack of chair space and so that they can keep each other occupied. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

Gach said many Sudanese refugees struggle to find jobs because of their limited ability to communicate.

Htaw said it took him between five and seven times just to pass the written exam to obtain his driver’s license because he is not fluent in English.

Some people are not able to pass it at all.

After obtaining his driver’s license, he said, he now takes time out of his schedule most days to help others with services they need. He is often seen at U.S. Bank in Albert Lea, helping people with their bank accounts.

Many of the refugees attend Adult Basic Education at Brookside Education Center to learn English and to work toward obtaining their GEDs.

Penny Jahnke, Adult Basic Education coordinator, said out of the 149 people who participated in the last school session, at least 75 percent — if not more — were refugees.

Jahnke said the people come to the school because they want to have jobs and want to be able to communicate with their neighbors and children, who are learning English in schools.

“We always tell people the hardest part is the first part, walking through the front door,” she said.

Jahnke said while many of the adults come in to learn, they often also seek out help with other resources such as the Department of Human Services.

There typically aren’t enough Bibles to go around at the Sunday worship services, so members are usually seen sharing. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune
There typically aren’t enough Bibles to go around at the Sunday worship services, so members are usually seen sharing. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

“Adult Basic Education is a lot more than just education,” she said. “Their families become a part of our family.”

Allyssa Sorenson, local Volunteers in Service to America coordinator, said she and others have been working to educate both the Karen and Sudanese communities on issues such as housing, transportation, law enforcement and even fishing regulations.

She said they hope to give more presentations in the future.

A beacon of light

Charles Newton, human resources manager at Albert Lea Select Foods, said there are about 250 Karen refugees working at the plant in Albert Lea. That’s almost half of the company’s total of 517 employees.

Of the Karen workers, he estimated more than half drive down from St. Paul to attend work.

Drums tend to accompany most Sudanese worship songs. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune
Drums tend to accompany most Sudanese worship songs. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

“They’re very dependable, hardworking people,” Newton said.

In 2007, he said the company began having a difficult time recruiting employees — a problem that only got worse after the company expanded — so he reached out to a few job service companies.

Through Lifetrack, a nonprofit human services organization in the Twin Cities, and the Karen Organization of Minnesota, the company at first recruited 100 Karen people to come to Albert Lea.

That number has since grown.

He said though a majority of the Karen employees still live in St. Paul and commute to work each day, about 30 percent stay in Albert Lea during the week. Most rent homes and about 3 to 5 percent own their own homes.

A typical Sunday worship service for the Karen involves praying, singing and different members speaking, most of which is accompanied by the piano or a guitar. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune
A typical Sunday worship service for the Karen involves praying, singing and different members speaking, most of which is accompanied by the piano or a guitar. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

The company has reached out to organizations in the community, including English as a Second Language teachers and representatives from Wells Fargo, to help the people become acclimated to life in Albert Lea.

“We’ve kind of become the employer of choice for the Karen people,” Newton said. “They ask for us by name.”

There are also about 30 Sudanese refugees employed at the plant.

Newton said though at first there were many challenges to having the Karen working at Select Foods — particularly because of the language barrier — the company has made it a priority to seek out at least a handful of employees who can communicate both languages.

“Once that main group got through that first month, we found a work ethic that everyone should be envious of,” he said.

Sudanese children, especially those in the Nuer tribe, are generally raised to be independent and self-sufficient. It’s common for children to help take care of their younger siblings, like the girl pictured is taking care of her younger brother during a Sudanese worship service. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune
Sudanese children, especially those in the Nuer tribe, are generally raised to be independent and self-sufficient. It’s common for children to help take care of their younger siblings, like the girl pictured is taking care of her younger brother during a Sudanese worship service. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

He noted the Karen people are always reliable, and often have better attendance than other employees living in Albert Lea.

“I’m very, very happy with our workforce, not just the Karen,” Newton said.

Five of the Karen employees at Select Foods have become U.S. citizens, and 70 percent of them have their residency card.

The families enjoy Albert Lea’s outdoor amenities, including the lakes and parks.

On Tuesday, in the final installment of the “Seeking Refuge” series, read about a group of community members and refugees who hope to open a resource center for refugees and others moving into Albert Lea.