Worthington welcomes refugees

WORTHINGTON -- Hundreds of community members gathered at the Nobles County Integration Collaborative Saturday for a special welcome event for Worthington's newest members -- refugees from the country of Burma.

WORTHINGTON -- Hundreds of community members gathered at the Nobles County Integration Collaborative Saturday for a special welcome event for Worthington's newest members -- refugees from the country of Burma.

The idea for Saturday's event came from Jenny Andersen Martinez, the human resources director at JBS Swift & Co. With the help of many community leaders, the first of its kind event came together.

"Most of these people have been in the country less than a year," said Andersen Martinez. "Knowing they are such new refugees, there is so much information they need and don't know how to go to get it. We want to see them succeed."

Andersen Martinez began working with several agencies in Minneapolis to recruit employees last fall, and those contacts led to bringing Worthington's newest residents.

"One day, they actually called me and asked for a tour," she said. "So, the first time they came, they brought five people, and all of them wanted to apply. They were impressed with the community."


Now, there are 80 Burma refugees of the Karen ethnic group working at JBS Swift & Co.

"The response from the community has been great, and that is exactly why they wanted to come here in the beginning, and that is why I think this will be their permanent home," Andersen Martinez said.

For the first part of Saturday's event, more than 80 Burmese people gathered in the collaborative's gymnasium to learn about the community. During the presentations, a translator spoke in Karen, their native language.

To kick off the event, Local Union 1161-United Food and Commercial Worker (UFCW) President Mike Potter sang Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," while attendees clapped along.

"You've come to a beautiful community here in Worthington," Potter said.

Next, representatives from the many agencies on hand spoke briefly about their programs.

Worthington Police Department Sgt. Jason Beckmann and officer Nate Grimmius talked to the newcomers about traffic laws, obtaining a drivers license and other law enforcement issues.

After the presentations, the new residents could visit the 20 informational booths. Groups such as District 518 Schools, Minnesota West Community and Technical College, the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce, YMCA, Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, Worthington Soccer League, the Worthington Police Department, several banks and other businesses provided information to the Burma refugees.


"This is the first-ever welcoming event that we've welcomed a new ethnic origin to our great City of Worthington," Potter said. "I'm very pleased with the colorful traditional clothing of the people from Burma. They've struggled and been through so much to get to this great country."

Abeba Adela, an Ethiopian refugee who has lived in Worthington for six years, felt strongly about attending Saturday's welcome party.

"I want to welcome them here and let them know this place is nice, and the people are kind," she said.

Sana Thonglyvong, a member of the Lao Buddhist Temple board, a JBS Swift employee and a union rep, was also happy to attend.

"My country, Thailand, and their country are close together," Thonglyvong said. "I wanted to meet them and help them in any way I can."

Htun Naing, who works for Lifetrack Resources, a career employment service for refugees and immigrants in St. Paul, applauded Worthington for hosting the welcome celebration.

"It is really surprising the community is doing this right away," said Naing, a Burmese refugee who moved to Minnesota five years ago. "I think this is a really good place for the newcomers to settle down, gain an education and build a true home here."

One of the first Burma refugees to come to Worthington in November 2007, Napoleon Say, could not believe the turnout at Saturday's event.


"This is really nice," Say said. "Thank you, Worthington, for welcoming us."

After the informational sessions, the gymnasium took on a festive atmosphere. A live band, whose members hail from Burma, played. Later in the evening, a group of Burmese dancers from the Twin Cities performed. The smell of traditional Burmese food had many people waiting in line to give it a try.

After the food was served, the town's newest refugees were seen sitting alongside longtime Worthington residents including Mayor Alan Oberloh and city councilmen.

Andersen Martinez is grateful for all the people and organizations that made Saturday's event a success. She wants the Burma refugees to continue to feel welcome in this city.

"They're very humble, kind and so appreciative of the new opportunity they have in this country," she said. "They love Worthington, they love working for JBS Swift, and we want to help them understand their job is only eight hours a day, and this community has a lot to offer."

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