- Associated Press - Thursday, May 8, 2014

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - While Wyoming might be the only state in the country without an official refugee resettlement program, that doesn’t mean there aren’t former refugees living in the Cowboy State.

There are dozens, perhaps even several hundred, former refugees living in Cheyenne alone.

Many of these people, like Abdirashid Noor, are from the war-torn east African nation of Somalia.

Noor, 32, and many others immigrated to the United States by way of refugee camps in countries that border Somalia, such as Kenya, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported Sunday.

The country had been unified from European colonies and achieved independence in 1960, but unity was short lived.

“There are no Somali families that have come to the United States who have not lost family members in the civil war,” Noor said.

“Two of my uncles were killed in front of my mother. She was helpless. She was standing in front of them watching, and she couldn’t help,” Noor said. “That is the worst thing.”

The war has raged since the central government was overthrown in 1991 by a coalition of clan-based rebel groups, according to information from the United Nations Operation in Somalia.

More than 500,000 people are estimated to have been killed and millions more have been displaced, according to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program.

Many who escaped, including Noor, found themselves in refugee camps in Kenya.

“The soldiers were trying to kill everyone. They were aiming for men, but if they didn’t find men, they would kill children and the ladies, rape them, torture them to get the information on where the men are,” Noor said.

“Luckily, my dad and my uncle left (the country) two days before the soldiers came to our house. They heard some rumors that people were coming and killing,” he said.

Noor, who was a child when the civil war broke out, soon followed suit and left Somalia along with his mother, siblings and several uncles.

“There were no vehicles, so we had to walk all the way from Somalia to Kenya,” Noor said. “Some people died on the way because there wasn’t enough water. They couldn’t get food. Some of them were eaten by animals. It was a horrible experience.

“Once we got to the border, the men that were guarding it wouldn’t let many people in unless you had money to bribe the guards. We had to stay at the border for like a month. We were just sleeping outside.”

Eventually, Noor and his family were admitted into Kenya and placed in a refugee camp.

“In the refugee camp, life is hard,” Noor said. “It’s 100 degrees all the time.

“It’s so congested, and you are not allowed out of the camp. People fight for space; people fight for work. It was survival of the fittest.”

It was in this teeming camp of 120,000 refugees that Noor went to school, learned English and became a Somali-English translator. In 2007 he was accepted into the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, where he studied accounting.

Noor found Greeley was home to a growing Somali community, but the majority did not come to attend the university - they came to work in the JBS meat packing facility.

“When people come into this country and they don’t know the language, they have a lot of issues getting jobs,” Noor said.

“So the only area where people from east Africa or Somalia get hired is JBS or another meat plant. They don’t require communication skills as long as you can do the work,” he said.

Because jobs at the meat plant are typically low-paying, many of the Somali employees in Greeley rely on subsidized housing. As the Somali population grew, so did the waiting lists for housing.

Colette West, co-executive director of the Global Refugee Center in Greeley, said the wait in Colorado can be as long as three years.

Noor and many others began looking north to Cheyenne for affordable housing.

Noor said many Somalis in Cheyenne commute to Greeley to work in the meat plant. Others, he said, have taken jobs in places like the Wal-Mart Distribution Center west of Cheyenne.

Noor and his wife, who worked at the Greeley meat plant, moved to Cheyenne with their newborn son last year.

“The people of Cheyenne are the most welcoming,” Noor said. “The problem is they don’t know anything about us. They are willing to help, but they don’t know where to begin.”

Greeley has a system to help new immigrants get services and education. But because the Somali community in Cheyenne is newer, those services are sometimes harder to find.

“They are going to need help navigating all the systems,” West said. “It’s very hard when you don’t speak the language.”

Paul Flesher, director of the University of Wyoming’s Religious Studies Department, said immigrants who come to the United States with different religious and cultural backgrounds are often hesitant to seek help.

“People don’t want to have public pressure. They don’t want to be singled out. There are still tensions that exist here over issues like 9-11,” Flesher said.

But language is often a bigger problem, including finding interpreters, he said.

Gretchen Carlson, along with teachers from Laramie County School District 1 and members of the Cheyenne Evangelical Free Church, have taken it upon themselves to help break the language barrier.

Carlson’s group holds weekly English classes for the city’s Somali community.

“These are some of the warmest, friendliest people I’ve met,” Carlson said. “They are so hungry to learn, and they are trying so hard.”

The hope is that with these new language skills, the members of the Somali community will be able to find better-paying jobs.

One student likes to say. “Bad English, bad jobs. Good English, good jobs,” Carlson said.

As the city’s Somali population grows, so will the need for services.

“There is definitely a need for services,” Carlson said. “These people aren’t going away.”

Having something similar to Greeley’s Global Refugee Center would help Cheyenne, West said.

“The more you can work on building community relationships, the better off everyone will be,” she said.

Noor, who works part time as a translator with the Global Refugee Center, agreed. But, he said, “I know that it might take a lot of time. It needs a lot of energy. It needs a lot of resources.”

___

Information from: Wyoming Tribune Eagle, http://www.wyomingnews.com

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