SHAJIA AHMAD is a reporter for The Garden City Telegram, a southwest Kansas daily spanning several rural counties deep in the heartland. She specializes in local government, agricultural and diversity-related stories, including a focus on Hispanic, Latino and other immigrant and refugee communities. Cell: 620-640-4643. Work: 620-276-6862, ext 232. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: http://swktalk.com/immigrationmatters/. Twitter: http://twitter.com/shajia.
“Groups Help Refugees Assimilate Into Culture,” July 10, 2010
When GCCC’s Adult Learning Center first began providing services to a growing number of refugees in southwest Kansas at the start of last year, the program in its infant stages was servicing a few hundred each month who sought assistance filling out job applications, visiting doctor’s offices, or help with child care or legal issues. In just more than a year, that number has doubled.
“Seeking A Better Life,” July 3, 2010
The influx over the past few years of Somali and Burmese refugees to the area is a cycle borne by the community nestled hours off the interstate… The newest residents, “secondary refugees” who have come from other states, are drawn to the area due to the availability of work at the beef-packing plants, where there are four in a 70-mile radius. They have historically brought and continue to bring newcomers here.
“A New Home.” June 26, 2010.
Large images of Somali men and women in their brightly-colored garb and camels walking on dust-red ground, and a painting of the Kaaba, the holy Meccan edifice where Muslims across the world turn their heads in prayer five times a day, hang on the charcoal-colored walls inside the community center. Next to the photographs, an American flag lies juxtaposed to a light blue banner with a single white star in the center.
Story Behind The Story
By Shajia Ahmad
Jan. 31, 2011
Most all of the world is a place where parts of wholes are described. This understanding of our world has pushed me incessantly to make sense of these fragments. As a journalist, I’m asked every day to piece many of these parts together. While some days the pieces dovetail perfectly; other days, I am left senseless by their chaotic jumble.
It’s that chaotic jumble that I’ve come to recognize is shared by many of my newest neighbors where I now live and work. When I first moved to Garden City, Kansas, (pop. ~40,000) to write and report for The Garden City Telegram, I was struck not only by the vibrancy of the otherwise-isolated rural community but by its rich cultural and ethnic diversity, too. Southwest Kansas is no stranger to outsiders: Mexican migrants began moving to the area to work at sugar beet factories more than a century ago. Then, during the 1970s and 1980s, waves of southeast Asian immigrants – often referred to by locals as the “boat people” – began settling in the area.
But more recently, during the last five years, the region has seen an incredible influx of secondary refugees, the majority of them Somalis and Burmese, hundreds of whom have moved from urban areas to work at one of four beef-packing plants that exist within a 75-mile radius in this corner of the state. In turn, local teachers say Kansas classrooms have gotten more crowded with a wider and more diverse array of faces; area social service organizations have told me they are scrambling (often unsuccessfully) to find translators who can both speak foreign languages and are culturally competent; and locals in their exercise gear sometimes stare in awe at the Somali women exercising in full Islamic garb at the local gym, unsure of what to make of the unusual scene.
But no one seems scared or frightened or upset. Why not? I wondered. I’m an American, and I’m having a hard time adjusting to this new home. How hard it must be for a refugee from another land who does not know English and (in most cases) practices a different religion! But Garden City has seen newcomers before and has always welcomed them, people (teachers to city councilors to journalists to social workers) kept telling me. And so these new residents will assimilate and integrate in the end as well. You’ll see, they said.
With these thoughts in mind, I began with this mission: I must get to know these new people so intimately that I can tell their immigration stories to our readers, most of them Caucasian and Hispanic or Latino Americans and a majority of them elderly, as well. Strictly from a humanitarian perspective, it is important to know and understand who your neighbors are, I thought, and if I don’t help them tell their stories, who will? I began building a rapport with those leaders in both Somali and Burmese communities that I had met through a local group called the Coalition of Ethnic Minority Leaders, an organization effort spearheaded by a chaplain at the local Tyson beef-packing plant. Those were the guys that knew English the best and that I could lean on for support as I worked on my project. After getting to know them intimately, they welcomed me into their homes and the homes of others. I met with many, many families, each with a story of struggle: from their refugee camps to making a new home in America while meat-packing for a living. I struggled with how to tell these stories and how to show what impact these newest residents were having on the community. In the end, I decided the best way to do so was to break each story or struggle down and retell it through the eyes of one family or group of people representing on ethnic community. And then to give a picture of how this family or community fit into the larger picture: a changing and rapidly diversifying Midwest.
One of the biggest obstacles I faced along the process was making my intentions known to the people who shared their stories openly. I had to reiterate time and again that I wasn’t there to help them, not in the sense that a social worker or other person helps them with financial hardship or other physical challenges, but to fill my role as a journalist and share stories that might share a sense of the circumstances Garden City’s newest residents have faced and now face. I think it took many of my sources (especially in the Burmese communities) some time to understand why I was there and what I was there to do. (This also proved difficult, because it meant I had to make many visits before I could muster up enough courage to ask photographers to tag along with me. I didn’t think families would be comfortable with more than one stranger in their homes at a time, not at first anyway.) In the beginning there were also countless times sources would ask me for help in ways that I did not feel comfortable doing. Some examples include help filling out forms they needed to take to the doctor or immigration offices, help to teach their elder sons or daughters English so they could do better in school, etc. Of course, with time they came to understand why I was there. But it took some time because they saw me in a role of authority and became confused about my presence at first.
I’ve been a cops/courts reporter and then a local government reporter, but during my two-year tenure at the Telegram it’s the burgeoning refugee communities I’ve most intimately come to know, thanks in part to the IJJ. It’s their stories, struggles and their triumphs that I’ve tried to understand and retell, as I – along with them – aim to make sense of our new home in southwest Kansas.
There’s no doubt I would not have been able to dedicate so much time and energy to the project without the assistance of the IJJ. The fellowship experience gave me the tools and resources I needed to understand the complexities of writing and reporting on such a bipolarizing topic as our nation’s immigration system and the players involved within, from the federal defense lawyer to the asylum-seeking refugee. But beyond educational, the fellowship experience was incredibly empowering, as well. I felt privileged to be a part of a group of such dedicated journalists. To future IJJ Fellows, the best piece of advice I can offer is to not be afraid to ask for help or guidance along the way, either from their own staff or from the IJJ crew. The other reporters provide invaluable advice and support during the fellowship and their experiences – coupled with the IJJ Senior Fellows’ expertise – are absolutely priceless resources. In hindsight, I wish I had leaned more on my fellow fellows and senior fellows for support – now it seems foolish that I did not!
Here also are a few of the couple of comments from our online readers. Unfortunately, we don’t get as many hits as we’d like, thus there are fewer comments from our readers than I would have hoped. That said, researchers and professors from Kansas universities and workers from non-profit-type groups in neighboring communities in Kansas and Colorado often contact me trying to get in touch with many of the people I’ve mentioned in these and subsequent stories.
- Farah Hanaf (a source from the first story) said to me after the story’s publication that he enjoyed it immensely and thanked me for helping his community offering a glimpse into their for the rest of Garden City residents.
- “Refugee population: I moved from Garden City a year ago and so miss the wonderful diversity of this multicultural city!! I read the Telegram online each day and thanks for these great stories!!” – online reader
- “I can relate to this posting. I’ve been in the beef processing for a good many years. Here at http://www.backtobasics-homestead.com we live a self sufficient life and have for years. Also our homestead is profitable. I enjoyed your post. Thanks” – online reader
- “Well written, able to see you did your research and really connected with the people!” – online reader