In the city of Boardman, almost everyone knows that change is on the way. There are new businesses slated for the Port of Morrow and the city is developing a new enterprise zone and urban renewal plan. There's also the long-awaited Pacific Northwest Motorsports Park, which promises a steady stream of new tourist dollars.
But the latest change seems to have come out of left field - the introduction of refugees from countries all around the globe. About 50 refugees now work at Threemile Canyon Farms and Boardman Foods, placed there by the International Rescue Committee, an organization that helps people from war-torn areas settle in the United States. They've come with their families, a willingness to work hard and a passion to achieve the American Dream. Some of them also come with a limited ability to communicate and a distrust of government and law enforcement.
From Burma, Bhutan, Somalia and Iraq, among other places, the refugees could change Boardman's demographics forever, breaking up the familiar - and oftentimes mistrustful - Anglo/ Mexican split.
At a meeting at Boardman City Hall Friday morning, the refugees and their families were welcomed with open arms by city leaders and school principals - anything they could do to help the families to assimilate, they said, would be done. The IRC set up the meeting to answer questions that people might have and to help the refugees access services.
The livestock manager at Threemile Canyon Farms, Walt Guterbock, and the vice president of operations at Boardman Foods, Debbie Radie, said they were thrilled to have the refugees - it is difficult to find legally authorized workers, they said, and the refugees are willing to do menial work such as peel onions. And they are ambitious, Radie said, about improving their lives and learning English.
"They are aggressive about wanting to learn, not only for themselves, but for their children," Radie said.
But the law enforcement and emergency service workers at the meeting were less than enthusiastic. It's hard for responders to do their job when people they are trying to help don't speak English - and it's "terrifying" for the person in crisis, said Morrow County Sheriff Ken Matlack. Then there is the issue of new arrivals not knowing the laws.
"From a law enforcement perspective, there have been consistent issues with people from other countries, documented and undocumented, that have caused problems," he said. "People come here and they don't understand the laws or the language."
Boardman Police Chief John Zeiler raised the issue of refugees who were not fully aware of traffic laws or were newly licensed, but not experienced, drivers.
This factor was tragically illustrated last Friday, when a refugee from Somalia, Yassin Noor, died in a car wreck on Tower Road. The driver of the car, Amin Ali Abdi, another refugee, made an unsafe pass and crashed into an oncoming car.
Noor left a wife and four children in Boise.
Leslye Moore, the executive director of the IRC's Boise office, said that many of the refugees had not driven a car before they came to the United States, and they may not have lived in an area that had a lot of cars. However, she said, refugees get an extensive education when they come to the U.S., and she was happy to help in any way the IRC could. There was a list of community leaders who spoke English that law enforcement officers could call if they needed an interpreter, she said.
"We really want to make this work for everyone involved," she said.
Moore said the only limiting factor to bringing more refugees to Boardman is a lack of housing. Already, there are refugees living in Hermiston and commuting to Boardman to work.
"We'd like to bring money into the Boardman community, but they can't spend it if they don't live here," said Lana Whiteford, IRC Boise's employment services specialist.