The one thing I feel very strongly about is that every citizen must have command of our language: English. We grow up with it, we speak it, we write it, and we read it. And every refugee and immigrant needs to know it if they’re going to succeed. If they’re going to be able to reach out and grab that American dream they’ve got to have control of that language.
I grew up with people of other cultures in my life back in California. That changed when we moved here to Greeley, where there were not as many immigrants. At that time, Greeley was mostly a farming community, with a lot of German background within the area. Obviously though in the last decade, we’ve had an influx of refugees and immigrants travel to Greeley. And I wanted to reach out to this community in the best way that I could.
I work, so I don’t have a lot of free time to help as many individuals as I would like. I work for Animal Health International, which is owned by Patterson Companies, a Fortune 500 company. After they purchased us a year and a half ago, they closed down a corporate office in Massachusetts that handled their vet portion of their corporation, and they moved most of those functions here to Greeley. So, I manage a lot of account services for the animal division, such as managing licensing and sales tax for the entire animal site of the corporation
But, I found some time to volunteer. When I went to help with some of the refugees, I was paired up with this little gal named Halimo. Before coming to America, she had lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for her entire life. She knew nothing but a refugee camp until she came here. When I met her, she was married and had a little girl, and she wanted to learn how to speak English. She had gone through some initial English courses when she first arrived, but she was working at JBS, which limited the amount of time for more classes. JBS is the meat packing and distribution plant here within Greeley. It’s a big part of our community, and it employs a lot of the local refugees. With the limited resources that many refugees have here in the United States, it’s one of the few places they can obtain employment while having very little grasp of our language.
Halimo wanted somebody to come to her home and help her with English to prepare for the citizenship test. She and her husband had been doing well in their citizenship classes, but she felt like she really needed additional help with the naturalization tests. I was tasked with going to her home twice a week to help her with her English. She asked me if we could just focus on the test for a while because she was so afraid that she wouldn’t be able to write for the test; you have to write some sentences, read and answer these questions, that kind of stuff. So we’ve really just been focusing on helping her with her writing, reading, and American History content.
Working with Halimo has made a large impact on my life. She’s awesome; I love having the chance to meet with her at home. Now that I know someone from this community, I’ve gained a connection to it. Now when I see someone in a Burka or a hijab, I see Halimo. Instead of seeing the images on TV of people shouting about death to America, I see Halimo. And I see her husband, and I see people I know personally. And I hear her little girl calling me “grandma” in Somali. Halimo has changed my view of all of it.
Suddenly, you’re like, “She’s no different from me. She’s so proud of the fact that her daughter is an American citizen.” I asked her why she wanted to be a citizen. She goes, “I love this country!” You know, it just changes your view on them. They’re just like us: they want to live in peace, and they want their children to have an opportunity.
In some ways, Greeley has done well trying to embrace the refugee and immigrant populations, and in other ways, we’ve just put our heads in the sand and ignored it. I don’t know that as a community we’ve done a good job embracing them. Everybody has their own talking points on the refugee population to scare everybody, right? So whatever side you’re on, you’ve got your talking points.
What I hear is people saying, “They’re taking our jobs.” What I say is, “Really? Would you work on the kill floor at JBS? I would love to see you do that. I would like to see you out there in the fields pulling weeds, because I don’t think you would be doing those jobs. They are not taking our jobs! They are taking the only jobs available to them when you can’t understand the language. If JBS closes down because nobody works there, it affects our community drastically in a negative way.
My hope and my dream is that we as a community can reach out to the refugee communities as a whole and convince them that we care about them, that we want to see them succeed in our community. We don’t just want them to continue working in the fields or at JBS. We want them to succeed like I want my children to succeed. I hope that we’ve found a way to give them what they need to succeed with language. They have to have it.
Halimo would love to have another job. Sadly, I can’t hire her because she doesn’t have command of English; otherwise, I would hire her in a heartbeat. Language is absolutely the gateway, and we as a community can better ourselves by helping them through that gateway. With English, they can get better jobs, and buy homes, and pay property taxes. It would make them totally committed to the community because they would then be a part of it; that’s what we need to figure out how to do. So hopefully in ten years, we are further along with that than we are now.
But I think it will take a lot of work. I feel like there are so many people in Greeley that are committed to it, but the general populace just doesn’t care. They don’t see it as impacting them directly, and I think if — say, 20 years from now — we don’t figure out how to do this, we’ll have some of the same problems that the European countries and just pull away. And I don’t want that happening to anyone like Halimo.