Thursday, December 22, 2011

Karen immigrants find viable employment option

ABERDEEN, S.D. (AP) — Sixty-one Karen refugees from Myanmar are now helping Molded Fiber Glass meet its employment needs

The Karen (pronounced ka' ren or kuh-ren) began immigrating to the United States about 20 years ago after fleeing persecution in their native land. Most spent months and sometimes years in refugee camps in Thailand before immigrating to primary settlement sites in the U.S.
Many of those now making wind turbine blades at Molded Fiber Glass previously lived in Huron, a primary settlement city, where they worked at the Dakota Provisions turkey processing plant.
Other Karen have come to Aberdeen from St. Paul, Minn., Spokane, Wash., and other primary settlement sites, said Dave Giovannini, Molded Fiber Glass general manager.
The workers that have been hired so far have been excellent, said Giovannini said.
"They have performed exceptionally well," said Travis Sexton, shift supervisor. "It has been an easy transition. All four of the gentlemen I work with have been quick learners and hard workers. Once they get going, it is hard to get them to stop."
Molded Fiber Glass, which employs 390 workers, needs to hire more because there is a strong demand for wind turbine blades, Giovannini said.
"We have an immediate need for 60-70 workers, and with low unemployment in the region, there were just not enough people available," he said. "We have not been able to meet our employment needs. So we had to look outside the box and look at the model used by Dakota Provisions."
Saw Khu Thar, 31, was one of the first Karen hired by Molded Fiber Glass four months ago. Previously, he worked at Dakota Provisions.
"I used to work in the turkey plant, but it was very cold inside," he said. "I wanted to work in different place."
Thar spent time in a refugee camp in Malaysia before immigrating to Dallas. There he was able to get only part-time employment for minimum wage. He moved to Huron to get a better paying job and now has moved to Aberdeen.
"I am happy for my job here," he said.
Baw Htoo Khet, 29, was also in the first group of Karen hired four months ago. He moved from Spokane to Aberdeen with his wife and two children. He and his family are renting an apartment, and their children attend May Overby Elementary School.
"This job gives me a better future," he said.
In Myanmar, which most Karen refer to as Burma because of their opposition to the ruling dictatorship, life for Karen was dangerous.
"We could have been killed if we stayed there, Khet said.
His family fled the country to a refugee camp in Thailand before immigrating to the U.S.
Khet speaks English well and translates for his friends when needed.
About half of the Karen at Molded Fiber Glass can converse in English, while half have little or no English skills, Giovannini said.
The Karen are legal immigrants who receive resettlement assistance from agencies such as Lutheran Social Services and qualify for government assistance for eight months until they find employment. Debra Worth, associate director of the Lutheran Social Service South Dakota Refugee and Immigration Center in Sioux Falls, is one of those helping Karen in the area.
Molded Fiber Glass has dedicated many resources to helping the Karen, Giovannini said.
The Human Resources department including director Rebecca Duke, Dawn Vaux and Tammy Spellman work with Karen to find housing, transportation and other essentials needed for their settlement in Aberdeen.
Giovannini said the Karen have been through difficult times and are committed to making a good life for themselves in this country.
"They want to make it," he said.
Nu Pay, 42, a Karen worker, moved to Aberdeen from Spokane, where he worked as a lay pastor with Karen in the Baptist Church. He is married and has one child. He had attended Bible school in Myanmar. Many Karen are Baptists, having first been exposed to the religion by missionaries in the 1800's, according to Friends of the Karen of Burma website.
Pay said he would go back to his country if he could, but that is not possible as long as there is no freedom there.
Saw Aung Lwin, 40, another Karen worker, said most Karen are sad they had to leave their country.
"We hide our feelings sometimes," he said. "But we try to do the best we can do."
He previously worked as a foreman at the turkey plant in Huron, but he said the cold temperatures began bothering his arthritis. He prefers manufacturing wind turbine blades, he said.
"I can find more opportunities to be myself here," he said.

Information from: Aberdeen American News, http://www.aberdeennews.com