Friday, December 19, 2014

Sandals and turkeys in South Dakota

This week, a team from BBC visited South Dakota and found a large Karen refugee community living in Sioux Falls (video of the story here). Most of the refugees work in a turkey processing plant, an increasingly common trend in small cities and towns across the Midwest. The short video highlights several key characteristics of new immigrant and refugee destinations. First, despite the dangerous and often demeaning nature of labor in meatpacking plants, the Karen interviewed by the BBC are happy with their work. While there are almost certainly dissenting views in the plant, I've often found that meatpacking workers are relatively happy with jobs that pay pretty well and provide some stability in a tough labor market. Second, there are tensions immediately underneath the surface in Sioux Falls, like many new destinations. A white resident describes his lack of comfort living next to Karen families that don't interact with him and have slaughtered a hog in the backyard. I've heard similar complaints about unfamiliar practices in Quad City neighborhoods from more established residents, and the fear of the unknown (and unknown plants and gardening practices) is a big obstacle that local refugee community gardeners have to overcome as well. Dialogue is absolutely crucial but is really difficult, as the man in the video suggests, when there is a language barrier. Finally, one of the Karen men talks about continuing to wear sandals in the winter even though his kids have bought him boots. This has come up, unprompted, in multiple interviews so far in Iowa and Illinois. Why are people so obsessed with refugees wearing "proper" shoes in winter? Maybe boots should be my primary measure of assimilation?