By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Fayetteville Observer
LUMBERTON – Say Reh stared through smudged glass as the rusted yellow school bus carried him past rolling tobacco fields, hollowed-out farmhouses and rows of mobile homes. This isn’t the America the 25-year-old read about as a child, growing up in a bamboo hut on the other side of the world.
The suffocating stench of raw meat and sweat mingled in the muggy midday air. He clutched a pair of rubber work boots and gazed out the window, watching fields and trees flash by.
Say Reh is one of more than 400 refugees from the Karenni state of Myanmar who have settled in Robeson County in the past 10months. The bus was carrying him and about 40 others home after a morning shift at the Mountaire Farms poultry processing plant in Lumber Bridge.
This existence – slicing up chickens for next to minimum wage in rural North Carolina – isn’t what Say Reh imagined almost two years ago when he boarded a plane in Thailand, bound for a new life in the United States. It isn’t what many of the refugees expected.
“It’s different,” Say Reh said in choppy English, raising his voice to speak over the rumbling diesel engine. “But it is good here.”
Almost anything is better than the lives the refugees left behind.
The Karenni have been persecuted for more than a half century in the Southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma. Most of the refugees now living in Lumberton lived for between 10 and 20 years in primitive refugee camps along the west Thai border before fleeing to the United States.
They stayed in small huts made of bamboo and teak hacked from the jungle. There was no power or running water. Many of the refugees were infected with malaria and suffered from malnutrition and depression.
In Lumberton, the Karenni have been placed in small apartments and rental houses scattered throughout the city. They live two to three families to a home and spend most of their time inside.
Few of the refugees speak any English. Many more are still learning about how to use electric appliances and must be reminded to watch for traffic in the street.
Those who are old enough to work are bused 30 minutes to and from the chicken processing plant each day by an employee management firm under contract with Mountaire.
The chicken processor has been paying the contractor, Summit Management Co., per worker to bring the refugees to Lumberton. The agency supplies the Karenni with housing and transportation at no cost to the workers.
Mountaire officials wouldn’t speak with a reporter about the arrangement, but workers outside the chicken plant said the Karenni refugees have replaced large numbers of Hispanics at the factory.
Tim Wiley, the owner of Summit Management, said as much.
“There has been a great need for these food processing companies to replace the undocumented worker,” Wiley said. “They’re scared to cut (illegal immigrants) loose because they’re not sure they can find someone to replace them. That’s where we come in.”
Wiley and his wife opened an office in Lumberton this spring to serve as a gathering place for the refugees. There, Summit employees and translators help the Karenni fill out health care documents, get the appropriate vaccinations and enroll their children in public school.
The firm also offers free English lessons and summer day care for school-age children. Next month, the agency plans to start teaching driver’s training courses.
“We’re not just flying them in here and cutting them loose,” Wiley said. “We’re working to prepare them for life here. It’s like raising children all over again.”
The Karenni began arriving in Robeson County in small numbers last winter. The majority of the refugees, though, only moved here within the past few months.
Many have struggled to adjust to life, both in and outside the plant.
Nge Reh sat cross-legged on the floor at the rental house he and his family have been sharing with a few other refugees in East Lumberton.
His hands were sore and his eyes heavy from long hours at the chicken plant. He feels isolated living in Robeson County, he says through a translator, because people in the community can’t understand him.
“We cannot communicate,” Nge Reh said in his native Karenni language.
A rerun of “Desperate Housewives” buzzed on a small TV across the room as he spoke. Nge Reh stared blankly at the screen while two of his three children climbed on him and tugged at his shirt.
His wife was still at work, finishing her morning shift at the chicken plant. The couple, like many of the married refugees, work opposite hours to ensure someone is always home with the children.
His new life is a lonely one, the refugee said. But he wouldn’t change anything.
“It is much better here than in the camps,” Nge Reh said. “Here, we have human rights and a future for our children.”
Nge Reh and his co-workers are among a growing number of refugees from Myanmar who have begun moving in droves from major U.S. cities to find work at slaughterhouses throughout the rural South.
Poultry processing is a harsh way to achieve upward mobility, but that’s exactly what these jobs represent for the Karenni.
The work can be strenuous. At the plant, hundreds of workers stand elbow-to-elbow at conveyor belts, wearing earplugs and wielding knives or scissors to debone and slice raw chickens. The tasks, completed at a hectic pace, can strain arms, wrists and backs.
Mountaire pays the refugees $8.20 an hour, more than twice what the average Karenni could earn in a day back home. All workers start at the same salary regardless of race or ethnicity, a plant human resources officer said.
In many cases, food processing is the only work the refugees can find.
“What happens is, the government brings these refugees to big cities thinking it will be easier for them to find work and assimilate,” Wiley said. “But there isn’t work, and after eight months, the government benefits stop. Then what?”
The meat packers started turning to refugees – who are here legally on temporary visas – in response to the growing government crackdown on illegal immigration over the past few years.
The Perdue Farms chicken packing plant in Rockingham has been paying a nonprofit organization to bring in refugees from Myanmar since 2008, according to published reports. The Smithfield Foods hog processing plant in Tar Heel also is said to have hired a number of refugees in recent years, but a company official declined to comment.
Not all the refugee contractors are as committed as Wiley to helping the workers get settled, he said.
“The way we do it, this isn’t a very profitable business,” he said.
Each day, three women from the firm travel to the refugees’ homes and teach them how to use household appliances, set the thermostat and operate TV remote controls.
The company is assisting the Karenni in an effort to establish their own community at a new mobile home park in town. They want to preserve their culture, Wiley said.
“That’s not something we’re required to do, but it’s something I think we must do,” he said. “It wouldn’t be fair if we didn’t. It’s a whole new world out there for them.”
It’s also a dangerous world.
A few refugee families were relocated to a new home this spring after they witnessed a Lumberton woman being gunned down in her front yard. They were terrified, Wiley said, so the contractor agreed to move them.
“We’re trying to keep them out of the worst neighborhoods,” he said.
Even then, the Karenni face daily hazards.
A 23-year-old refugee, Hso Reh, was killed this spring when a driver ran him over from behind on his bicycle. He had been in town for less than two weeks.
Another refugee, said to have been riding on the handlebars, was injured. Both men were wearing dark clothes and had no reflectors while riding late at night, according to a police report.
The incident prompted volunteers from Hyde Park Baptist Church to get involved.
“It just broke my heart,” said Carole Allen, an employee with the church. “I can’t imagine being in another country, not knowing the language and not having anyone there for you. I told our deacon, ‘They don’t speak our language. They don’t know our culture. This is a huge need for our community.’ ”
Hyde Park volunteers started offering lessons on bicycle safety, while others in the church organized donation drives for the Karenni. Last month, the church hosted a cultural exchange dinner with the refugees.
“We couldn’t really communicate very well, but we shared food, and it was a good time,” Allen said.
The Karenni – mostly Baptists and Catholics after years of missionary efforts at the refugee camps – have begun holding their own Christian service inside the church gymnasium. They sing American worship songs and pray for their family members back home.
Last month, Hyde Park started paying the Karenni pastor a salary so he could quit his job at the chicken plant.
“Whatever we can do to reach out to them and help them,” Allen said, “we’re going to do it. We don’t have to fly overseas to be missionaries.”
Not everyone in Robeson County has been so receptive. Years of confinement in the refugee camps have, in many ways, left the Karenni ill equipped for their new lives here. Some residents have begun to push back.
Geneva McIntosh stood on the front stoop outside her home at Carthage Square apartments on a recent afternoon and pointed to a line of T-shirts and blue jeans slung over bushes next door.
“It’s how they dry their clothes,” the 73-year-old woman said. “It’s ridiculous.”
More than 40 Karenni refugees have moved into the apartment complex off Carthage Road in the past six months. At first, McIntosh said, she was intrigued by the new faces. Then she grew tired of them.
“We don’t like it,” McIntosh said. “They leave garbage all over the place. They spit everywhere. They bathe outside. It’s a nuisance.”
McIntosh said she and other neighbors want to have the refugees evicted.
“Are they even here legally?” McIntosh said. “I think it’s unfair to bring people here from all over the world to take our jobs. There are people here in Robeson County who need those jobs.”
Lumberton city officials and police have fielded a handful of calls from residents like McIntosh who complain about refugees spitting in public, piling trash outside their homes and bathing in their backyards.
“We’re trying to teach them they can’t do that stuff here,” Wiley said. “But it’s going to be a process. Some people, no matter what, they just don’t like foreigners.”
After a few months in Lumberton, the Karenni still meet hostility on a near-daily basis, Wendy Jordan said.
Jordan drives a bus for Summit Management and has been helping the Karenni enroll their children in school. She also takes the refugees shopping on weekends.
“As Americans, we are the world’s worst at accepting new people,” she said. “We could learn a lot from them if we let them.”
Thay Law has made it his goal to enlighten those who look down on his people.
The 33-year-old is among the Karenni refugees who have settled in Lumberton. He speaks near-fluent English and drives a car.
Thay Law works for the management company to help his people adjust to their new lives. He also hopes to educate Robeson County residents about his people’s true aspirations, he said.
“We have come here legally,” Thay Law said. “We came to work and be free. We are eligible for (government) benefits, but our people want to work.”
The Karenni arrived in the United States as permanent residents. After a year, they can apply for a green card, which puts them on the road to citizenship within five to seven years.
More than 120 Karenni children started at public schools throughout Lumberton last week. Most of them already speak better English than their parents.
“That generation will be fine,” said Thay Law, himself a father of three. “They will learn and have a good life.”
As for the adults, nobody wants to slice a chicken for the rest of their life, Thay Law said. But his people will do what it takes to be free from oppression and to offer their children a better future. If that means long hours working jobs that most Americans shun, then so be it.
Beh Reh, like many of the refugees, doesn’t particularly enjoy his job at Mountaire. But it’s what he must do to provide for his children, he said.
The 35-year-old hopped across the living room on one foot to answer the door a few weeks ago. He had his left leg blown off in a land-mine explosion nearly 12 years ago.
The refugee has finally adjusted to walking on a prosthetic, he said through a translator, but it’s uncomfortable after long shifts at the chicken plant.
“It’s made it very difficult because I have to stand all day,” he said. “I get cramps in my leg.”
Beh Reh gets no special treatment at the plant, he said. Then again, he has never thought to ask for it.
His 4-year-old son jumped up and down on the couch as he spoke. Beh Reh gently scolded the child, then turned away and smiled.
“I work to support my family,” he said in Karenni. “It’s what I must do.”
Back on the bus, the window view of rural farmland had been replaced by lines of small bungalow houses, car-lined streets and cracked city sidewalks.
Say Reh perked up in his seat as it rounded a corner and neared the Lumberton apartment complex where he has lived the past 10 months. His pregnant wife, Kue Meh, was waiting for him inside.
“I met her here,” Say Reh said.
His face lights up as he details their speedy courtship. The couple met in Lumberton and were married a few months later, he said.
She has stopped working at the chicken plant, at least until the baby comes, he said.
The fact that his first-born child will be an American is not lost on the young refugee.
He doesn’t mind working at the slaughterhouse, he said, but he hopes for something better one day. Perhaps after a few years, he can become a teacher or take a job as a social worker.
For now, he cuts chickens.
The young husband and father-to-be gathered his boots and backpack as the old school bus crossed onto his block. He shared one last thought about his new life before standing to leave.
“It is not easy for my people here,” he said. “We have to learn about how to live and adjust to life.”
Because for better or worse, this is home now.