From Goat Farms to Parenting Classes: Immigrants Find Support Across U.S.
Five states where communities are ensuring immigrant rights and wellness.
This article is part of our state-by-state exploration of local solutions.
Twenty miles outside of Burlington, refugee farmers have found a way to make the state’s thriving local food culture taste a little more like home.
Fresh goat meat is a staple of the cuisine and spiritual practices of people from Bhutan, Nepal, and parts of Africa, but for many refugees, obtaining the traditional meat in Vermont wasn’t easy. Most local stores only carried frozen options, so getting fresh meat meant a long and pricey trip to farms across the state or to Massachusetts, with the added trouble of transporting a live goat back to the city and slaughtering it themselves.
“We used to have to drive three hours,” says Chuda Dhaurali, a Bhutanese refugee who would make the trek with friends. “We thought, why don’t we start a farm here in Vermont?”
Community organizer Karen Freudenberger heard the same sentiment echoed at the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. She surveyed the grocery stores and markets around Burlington and found only frozen goat meat imported from Australia and New Zealand.
Meanwhile, goat milk and cheese were prevalent in the state, thanks to a number of dairies, and those farmers had a surplus of young male goats, known as bucklings. Together, Freudenberger and members of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program struck a deal with dairy goat farmers. In 2013, they put the bucklings on farmland provided by the Vermont Land Trust 20 miles outside of Burlington, where Dhaurali raises them for meat within reach of the city’s immigrant population.
Today, three families share the farm and the herd has grown to some 400 goats. —Araz Hachadourian
In Pima County, home to an estimated 31,000 undocumented immigrants, a grassroots defense network kicks in whenever a member of Tierra y Libertad Organization (TYLO) is picked up by Border Patrol agents.
It starts with an arrest, which sets off a phone tree: One TYLO member calls another, who will then call a lawyer or the person’s family. Together they find ways to post bail or hire an attorney. When deportation is inevitable, they try to ensure that the member doesn’t get lost in the system and that their family can contact them.
The program started after the passage of a statewide anti-immigration measure in 2010. The group, which builds urban green spaces around Tucson, noticed members and their loved ones were being deported.
TYLO organizer Claudio Rodriguez says the constant presence of the Border Patrol instills fear, but “knowing what to do gives us some power.” —Araz Hachadourian
Mai Mome needed help with her financial aid forms for a nursing program. Paw Tha Taw wanted to apply for U.S. citizenship. Lian Deih Mung figured he knew enough English to translate for his Chin Zomi-speaking neighbors.
Eventually, all three Burmese immigrants found a refugee advocacy office in rural Marshalltown, pop. 27,000—1,200 of whom are from Myanmar. The office, one of three Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center (EMBARC) locations statewide, was founded by and for Southeast Asian refugees as a community hub.
And, supporters say, a necessary one. That nearly 5 percent of Marshalltown’s population is Burmese hints at the larger impact of immigration within it: In 2007, the Burmese became the largest group to be resettled by the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services.
Since the 1970s, thousands of Vietnamese, Bosnian, and Sudanese refugees have settled in Iowa. But in the mid-2000s, when a few Burmese families grew to a few hundred—often arriving to work in meatpacking plants—advocates realized they faced a different immigration challenge: the variety of languages within and the cultural isolation of the larger Burmese community, many of whom had not been exposed to another dialect—let alone English—or life outside resettlement camps. The barriers were even more significant than with past refugee populations.
So leaders of the various Burmese refugee communities, alongside Henny Ohr, a Korean American advocate, established EMBARC to equip refugees with the tools to lift themselves out of poverty.
Today, refugees trained as “navigators” help provide services, including parenting classes and health information, in an attempt to reach an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 Burmese statewide.
“We want the power to come from the community,” says Ohr.
Taw, 29, now works at EMBARC as a family advocate, helping parents register children for school and interpreting paperwork.
“I’ve been able to get to know my own community too,” she says. —Kim Eckart
When Alabama’s House Bill 56 passed in 2011, it was touted as the nation’s harshest anti-immigrant law. The measure made it illegal for undocumented immigrants to seek work, obtain housing, or go to public colleges and universities. Many fled the state, achieving the law’s aim of forcing “self-deportation.” Others stayed, determined to defend their right to be in their homes.
“People now had a law that stood behind them to be more racist,” said Evelyn Servin, a banker who moved to the United States from Mexico when she was 12. Although she was documented, her mother and sister were not. And like many others in the state, she wanted to do something to take action in response to House Bill 56.
The first step was getting educated, says Servin, who arranged town hall meetings and door-knocking campaigns to educate people on their rights and how to communicate with each other. Activists met with congressional representatives, staged sit-ins, and worked with legal organizations to file lawsuits. Through these efforts, they successfully swayed many of the law’s proponents and, provision by provision, stripped it of its most aggressive points.
House Bill 56 may have been dismantled, but the effects it had on organizing the immigrant community stuck. A “leadership council,” of which Servin is a member, formed from 15 grassroots groups. “There was nothing really happening in the state to make us come together. Then HB 56 happened,” says Servin. “With it came a lot of energy and courage to fight.” —Araz Hachadourian
In 1996, a group of nuns and community leaders in Georgetown decided to address the extreme difficulties faced by the county’s mostly Guatemalan immigrants, many of whom were moving to the state to work in the poultry industry. Together, they founded La Esperanza, a bilingual nonprofit to help Spanish-speaking families integrate into their communities. The organization provides services ranging from citizenship classes to pre- and postnatal care to emergency and long-term assistance for domestic violence victims.
Concepcion Vicente, who emigrated from Guatemala eight years ago, says La Esperanza serves as a center for her community and that the organization’s staff members will do whatever they can to help those in need, whether by supplying food or translating documents into Spanish. She stresses that for her and many others, La Esperanza provides exactly what its name promises: hope. —Liza Bayless
Liza Bayless is a former editorial intern at YES!
Kim Eckart is a freelance writer and editor based in Seattle. She is a former associate editor for YES!
Araz Hachadourian is a former online editorial intern at YES!