Image: Immigration raid Somalis
Charlie Neibergall  /  AP file
Somali immigrants Abdinasir Abib, Aydurus Farah and Abdiaiz Hassan, from left, sit on the steps of a shop in Postville on Sunday. Farah said he hopes to make money to send to his family in Somalia.
updated 7/28/2008 8:38:03 PM ET 2008-07-29T00:38:03

Scores of Somali immigrants are taking jobs at the nation's largest kosher meatpacking plant, replacing Hispanic workers arrested in a huge immigration raid and forcing a remote Iowa town to make another cultural shift.

Before the May 12 raid at Agriprocessors, hundreds of Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants maintained a vibrant community in Postville, a largely white community of 2,200 people in northeast Iowa.

Now the stoops and haunts once occupied by Hispanics are being filled by about 150 Somali men.

Aydurus Farah, a 21-year-old who immigrated from Somalia in 2004, set out for work in meatpacking plants to make money for his family back home in Somalia.

He planned to begin work at Agriprocessors this week, drawn from Minneapolis to Postville by the promised wages.

"They said over there they pay like 13 dollars an hour, very good money," Farah said as he stood outside Sabor Latino, a popular Mexican restaurant.

He said he also appreciates the city's small-town charms.

"I did not like Minneapolis — too many people, too many cars," he said. "I like small towns. I am small town guy, so this is nice place. Maybe I can raise family here."

Newcomers 'raised some eyebrows'
The influx of Somalis has been met with some surprise in a community still bewildered by the Agriprocessors raid, the largest raid of its kind in the United States. Federal agents arrested 389 people, mostly Guatemalans and Mexicans who had established roots and become part of the community.

The new immigrants have "raised some eyebrows, which is pretty normal when you get somebody different in town," Postville Mayor Robert Penrod said.

"That said, as far as I know they haven't caused a whole lot of problems. They've been keeping to themselves," he said.

It's not the first cultural change in Postville. The slaughterhouse attracted eastern Europeans in the 1990s, including immigrants from Bosnia, Poland, Russia and former Soviet Republics. Hispanics became the majority in the last decade.

The result is that a town that barely covers two square miles is home to people from 24 nationalities speaking 17 languages.

Farah and others said the Somali community in Minneapolis and elsewhere is abuzz with talk of well-paying meatpacking jobs at Agriprocessors.

That runs counter to stories told by workers at the plant who described pay before the raid as $10 an hour or lower with no extra for overtime. Some also claimed the plant hired underage employees and forced its workers to endure unsafe conditions.

Juda Engelmayer, a spokesman for Agriprocessors, said the company wouldn't comment on pay or staffing issues.

'It's nice here'
Regardless of previous claims, Hassam Jilmale said he left work at a Tyson plant in Nebraska because he heard he could make more money with better conditions at Agriprocessors.

The 26-year-old said he was starting at the plant on Tuesday.

"We make much more money here," he said. "At the other place, they did not like Somalis. They were no good. So far this is good. It's nice here."

Farah lives with three others in a cramped apartment on Postville's main street — located just above a Latino bakery and Sabor Latino, and down the street from a Hispanic clothing store and a Guatemalan restaurant.

Many of the Somalis who have come to Postville are legal immigrants with roots in Minneapolis, which has one of the nation's largest concentrations of Somali immigrants.

Hassan Mohamud, a Somali native who works as a legal advocate at The Legal Aid Society in Minneapolis, said the young men leave because low-skilled factory jobs are scarce in the Twin Cities and they need to provide for their families.

"It is almost always financial reasons," he said. "Here there are less jobs and the workers cannot cover their financial needs. So they leave so that they can give back ... and they can get a job that doesn't require skills and languages."

Postville 'adjusting'
No new businesses or mosques have opened in Postville to support the new community, but residents said they are leery about adjusting to another foreign culture even as the outcry over the May raid lingers.

The raid made Postville an unlikely flashpoint in the immigration debate. On Sunday, about 1,000 people, including many Postville residents, marched through the city's streets to protest the immigration raid and Agriprocessors' treatment of employees.

Dave Hartley watched from the street as people marched through the town and past the meatpacking plant. The town's situation is regrettable, he said, and it has thrown many of the residents off balance.

The Mexican and Guatemalan communities "had good and bad ones, but they policed their own," he said.

The new Somali residents seem fine, but he fears there is only so much upheaval the town can take.

"We're just always adjusting and it's scary, it's hard," he said. "We get all these new people and we don't know who they are."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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