Somalis fill vacant jobs at Iowa meatpacking plant

POSTVILLE, Iowa (AP): Nearly three months after a U.S. immigration raid uprooted almost 400 employees at a meatpacking plant in northeastern Iowa, dozens of Somali immigrants are slowly but steadily filling the depleted ranks left by the arrested workers.

Along Postville's main street, in a storefront that used to hold a mattress store, a dozen Somali men ate dinner and chatted on a recent evening. Some members of the Somali community are renting the room and hope to turn it into a restaurant, said Sadiq Abdi.

"They want a place where we can eat Somali food and just to be,'' he said.Federal officials have said the May 12 raid at Agriprocessors, America's largest kosher meatpacking plant, was the largest single immigration enforcement effort in U.S. history.

As they fill the jobs vacated by the 389 people _ mostly Mexicans and Guatemalans _ who were arrested during the raid, the Somalis are now beginning to form their own community within this town of 2,200.

By their own estimates, there about 100 to 150 Somalis in town. Meanwhile, the Somali presence _ including some women and other family members _ has been more noticeable in recent weeks, as new workers have settled into town.

Abdi arrived recently from Minneapolis, which has one of America's biggest concentrations of Somali refugees, and he's thinking about applying at the plant, he said. At the former mattress store, he stood next to Ahmed Ahmed, a Somali man who said he worked his first night shift at the plant several weeks ago. Both say they are in the U.S. legally.

"When I first come here, nobody knows each other,'' he said. "After a couple of weeks, we get together to eat and talk.''Ahmed works in the plant's sausage department, he said, though he has friends who work in a variety of areas. Though he is Muslim, Ahmed said he saw no difficulty working in a kosher meatpacking plant where most of his bosses are rabbis.

"Work is work,'' he said. "They are nice and they teach me how to do my work.''Standards for kosher and halal meat are similar. As a result, practicing Muslims in the United States often buy kosher food because it is easier to find.

Chaim Abrams, a manager at the Agriprocessors plant, said the nature of the plant forces employees to work with many different cultures.

"There's nothing specific or different about (the Somali workers) that I note,'' Abrams said during a recent interview at the Agriprocessors plant. "... This is a town that's home to 26 nationalities. We never bothered to do the statistics or research ourselves, but generally speaking, we've always had many different people from many different backgrounds.''

Abrams said his biggest challenge wasn't cultural. He focused more on filling a workforce with "the right people who could appreciate and enjoy this type of work,'' he said.

The city's mayor, Robert Penrod, said the Somalis were blending into Postville's multiethnic fabric.

"They kind of mingle among themselves, and they don't bother anybody,'' Penrod said. "Some of them have left because they don't like slaughterhouses, but a lot of them have decided to stay for now.''

Ahmed admitted he is still adjusting to the area. Like Abdi, he came to the town from Minneapolis, where he said he had family and a steady supply of Somali food, such as goat meat.

In Postville, Ahmed said, he occasionally eats Latino food in local restaurants, but he hopes an authentic Somali eatery will open soon.

Ahmed also said more Somalis were beginning to think about Postville as a long-term option.

"We are wanting to bring in families,'' he said. "But we all need to make sure this is long-term. So far, so good. We came here because they were hiring quickly, and I stay here as long as I can keep my hours.''

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