Recently while staying in Omaha, Nebraska we read that 200 Somali workers were fired from their jobs at a meatpacking plant in the town of Grand Island, Nebraska run by the JBS Swift Meat Co. The workers had demanded and were refused time to pray and break their fast at sun down during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Somalis had also been fired in a similar fashion at other Swift plants in Colorado and Texas. Having written about Somalia in the past and interviewed Somalis in Kenya for the “Journey into Islam” project, I was curious to see how Somalis were getting on in the US and concerned about these mass firings occurring in the Midwest.
After a speech Dr. Ahmed delivered at Omaha’s Creighton University I met Abdi Mohamed, a member the Somali community in Omaha, and we began discussing the controversy at the plant. Abdi, a refugee himself, had recently got US citizenship and had built a life in Omaha. He said he knew some people in Grand Island and graciously offered to take me there because he said he agreed with the mission of our project and the issues Dr. Ahmed had spoke about during the lecture—the need to improve relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Early the next day Abdi, Craig, and I set off on the nearly three hour drive across the state of Nebraska. We arrived in Grand Island and Abdi stopped briefly on the side of the street to pick up a Somali worker who we hoped could direct us in town. “Welcome to America!” a woman screamed from across the street. “Get moving!”
We headed for the center of the Somali community. It was a small room off one of the streets which served as prayer room, restaurant, community center and place of business, all rolled into one. There were about six workers in the room, one of which had just been fired that day. The workers didn’t speak much English, so Abdi translated for us. As the conversation went on, more fired workers came in to share their story.
There had been tensions for some time between the Somali workers and the management of the plant over cultural and religious issues like prayer times. The final straw came when managers grabbed two Somali women who were praying and removed their prayer rugs from under them, which the Somalis viewed as a major religious and cultural insult.
The Somalis reiterated their demand for a short break from the meat assembly line and were granted a break at 7:45 for prayer. But then Hispanic workers—mainly Mexican—protested that the Somalis were being given preferential treatment. Tensions escalated. In response, the management at Swift canceled their offer of 7:45 prayer and then, to the ire of the Somalis, pushed the break way back to 9:00. This was seen by the Somalis as a deliberate slight to them. Some Somalis attempted to break anyway to pray and were fired. Some workers requested a bathroom break and would secretly pray during the time allotted. The management suspected that they went not to the bathroom but to pray and were fired. Many others simply walked off the job when threatened with dismissal should they choose to pray.
During our conversation I was struck by the devoutness and humbleness of these workers. With so many illegal immigrants working in the US, I found it hard to believe that legal US residents were having such a tough time here. These workers had fled the hell of civil war in Somalia as refugees, languished for years in camps in Kenya and finally made it to the US. There they journeyed to small Midwestern towns to work in a dangerous job, living in apartments packed full of people. I visited their plant and it had a foreboding prison-like atmosphere with an almost unbearable stench—a pretty rough place to work.
Now hundreds of them had lost their jobs and were left helpless in this strange place. They seemed lost and dazed. They have no one to represent them, and it takes money to hire lawyers. But despite this they still had a strong sense of dignity, of confidence. I asked them how they felt after losing their jobs, and they said they felt great. “This is not a loss for us,” one worker said, “It is a win.” In their minds they had preserved their culture and their religion, Islam.
Previously they didn’t think there was any conflict between practicing their religion and living in the United States. In general the former workers said they loved living in the US, which had given them opportunities to live in peace, far from their violence-plagued homeland. But in this case they were confused and hurt. “America has freedom of religion,” one man said, “I don’t understand what is happening here.” When I asked them what they would do now that they were left with nothing, one worker replied that according to Islam if your religion is being oppressed in one place you can leave and go someplace else. There were other plants elsewhere that were accepting Somalis and were letting them pray, the workers told me.
But many Somalis in Grand Island have pledged to fight the firings though the American system. They initially lobbied the city’s mayor without success but now have contacted the US Department of Justice Office of Community Relations as well as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The government organizations will sit down with the relevant parties this week.
It is interesting that in the American press this story was often cast as a straightforward Islam versus America case, where Muslims were seen as not adapting to American values in the workplace. “We don’t get time to pray at work,” said one white Grand Island women we spoke to, “why should they?” But in reality things are a bit more complex as the real culture clash seemed to occur between immigrant groups within the plant.
This case shed a much needed light on Muslim/non-Muslim relations in a little-seen sector of American society and highlighted the difficulties some Muslim immigrants face coming to the United States. I hope that a settlement can be reached soon.