The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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."

Text Only | Photo Reprints
State, national news
  • Cinema verite documentarian Robert Drew dies at 90 Filmmaker Robert Drew, a pioneer of the modern documentary who in "Primary" and other movies mastered the intimate, spontaneous style known as cinema verite and schooled a generation of influential directors that included D.A. Pennebaker and Albert M

    July 30, 2014

  • Homeowner killed, another injured in Vegas crime spree LAS VEGAS — A horrific carjacking and home invasion spree ended with two people dead and a woman in critical condition. One victim, Richard Ramos, a 59-year-old father of four, “fought to his death” to protect his wife and children from their attack

    July 30, 2014

  • Officer Shooting Minnesota-9 [Duplicate] UPDATE: Suspect in Minnesota officer killing in custody WEST ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Police in Minnesota say a man wanted in the shooting death of an officer is in custody after being shot by police. St. Paul police spokesman Sgt. Paul Paulos says 39-year-old Brian Fitch Sr. got out of a minivan firing at

    July 30, 2014 4 Photos

  • Officer Shooting Minnesota-3 [Duplicate] Minnesota officer killed making traffic stop WEST ST. PAUL (AP) — A police officer in Minnesota was fatally shot Wednesday while making a traffic stop and authorities said they were searching for a suspect. Mendota Heights police officer Scott Patrick, 47, was shot about 12:20 p.m. after pulli

    July 30, 2014 2 Photos

  • Possible suspect caught in Minnesota cop shooting WEST ST. PAUL (AP) — A potential suspect in the shooting of a police officer in Minnesota has been captured. Minnesota Public Radio News reports that the officer was killed. Television news footage showed the man being pulled from his vehicle Wednes

    July 30, 2014

  • Police shooting reported in West St. Paul WEST ST. PAUL (AP) — Police are responding to the reported shooting of an officer in West St. Paul. Details weren't immediately available. Calls from The Associated Press to several police and city departments in the area weren't immediately returne

    July 30, 2014

  • Mars rover Opportunity breaks the off-world driving record Opportunity, the little rover that could, has broken a 41-year-old driving distance record that’s out of this world. The decade-old NASA Mars rover has crossed the 25-mile mark, surpassing the 24.2-mile record held by the Russian moon rover Lunokhod

    July 30, 2014

  • Minnesota officials consider high-speed rail ROCHESTER, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota officials are holding public meetings on a proposed high-speed train linking Rochester to the Twin Cities. Transportation planners from state and federal departments are evaluating possibilities for the Zip Rail pas

    July 30, 2014

  • Study finds 5 servings of produce is enough, but we're not eating it How many times will we have to be told? Apparently we haven’t reached the point when we’ll change our habits, but here goes again: Eating five servings of fruits and vegetables every day can help us live longer. That comes from researchers’ analysis

    July 30, 2014

  • GOP gov hopeful Honour wants state spending cap Tells St. Cloud Times he wants a statutory budget cap linked to population and inflation.

    July 29, 2014