The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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State, national news

May 6, 2013

Burmese refugees flock to Iowa meatpacking town

COLUMBUS JUNCTION, Iowa — The first Chin Burmese student arrived at Wilma Sime Roundy Elementary School three years ago, a smiling preschooler whose father often checked on his progress.

The school had long been accustomed to educating the children of the Mexicans, Hondurans and Salvadorans who came to work at the sprawling Tyson Foods pork processing plant that sits outside this town of 2,000. But then, principal Shane Rosenberg recalled, Tyson informed school leaders that a new group of workers was coming — the Chin, a largely Christian ethnic minority who were fleeing their homeland in western Myanmar to avoid persecution.

A trickle of Chin students turned into dozens. Frustrated educators struggled to communicate, often having to call the pastor of the Chin church to interpret. Rosenberg intervened to ease the way, using grant money to hire one of the Chin to translate to and from the Hakha language. And he invited Chin parents for a welcoming ceremony and tour of the school.

"It was an awe-inspiring moment, for them to see the opportunities their children were going to have by being here in school," he said.

All told, about 400 refugees have descended on the town, and more are arriving by the week to reunite with friends and relatives and work grueling jobs for Tyson. Like other waves of immigrants, they were drawn to this poor, sparsely populated region of southeastern Iowa by the promise of jobs, good schools and welcoming people.

And as was the case with other waves of immigrants, there have been bumps along the way.

"We've had a lot of experience with Hispanic cultures, but for all of us, the Burmese thing is new. There's no one around that is an expert in that area or knows the language or this and that. That whole transition has been interesting," said Mayor Dan Wilson, a businessman who grew up on a farm outside town. He said the influx has been more easily noticed in Columbus Junction than elsewhere: "It's more obvious in a small town when you've got 200 new people coming in. You're not going to blend in here. You're going to stick out."

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