Burmese refugees begin work at Nacogdoches Pilgrim's Pride

BEAUMONT, TX (News Release) - By Donna McCollum - email

NACOGDOCHES, Texas (KTRE) - Inside Pilgrim's Pride, ten Burmese refugees are learning how to process poultry. Yesterday was orientation. Today, training began.

At the end of the day, the workers came off their shift tired, but satisfied.

" Great first day because this is the first day in this company that I work. Very, very good," said Ma Thi Yar, the group's trainer.

"They have refugee status which is a special status under our laws that give them a right to work here," said John Thomasson, human resources manager at Pilgrim's Pride.

Yar guided the group of ten workers through their first day. They arrive from various Texas cities, but most have lived in Houston for six months to two years. Most are in their early 20's. Like many young men their age, they're wanting to start a new future.

"Like a new country, a new city," said Yar.

Their life is much different from the tropical surroundings of Burma, but that has been gone for years. Some have spent 5, 10, even 20 years in refugee camps. Upon their arrival to the United States they lived with foster families. They're now adjusting to an American way of life with the help of interpreters and liaisons.

"They've had many orientations and they know about America now," said Beh Reh. He is now working for Pilgrim's Pride as an interpreter and liaison. They're learning, "How to live in the United States," said Reh.

Three weeks ago, Thomasson said the refugees would arrive by spring. The first group arrived Monday. Thomasson says families won't arrive for several months. The company is providing an interpreter, transportation and housing.

"They do need support now," Thomasson said. "They don't speak the language. They're getting used to the country and you want to provide enough support so they can get on their own two feet and not take them past that point to where you create a lifetime of dependency."

For now the group is living in a boarding home, a former alcohol treatment facility. Each week they'll be joined by others with similar pasts and similar goals. Additional arrivals are expected each week. Pilgrim's is hiring the workers to launch a new manual poultry deboning line.

The company says it offers jobs to anyone, but the local qualified job market is depleted. They call the Burma connection an innovative approach for economic development.

"We have great benefits here at Pilgrim's," Thomasson said. "We have very competitive kinds of packages and those are the kinds of things we offer to the refugees, just like we would offer them to anyone else."

Already, upset Pilgrim's Pride employees have begun e-mailing and blogging media outlets. One wrote temporary workers were sent home early yesterday and the Burmese stepped in their place. Thomasson said today no employee has been sent home in order to make room for the Burmese.

"We're going to Houston and other places in the U.S. to bring in workers who have an absolute right to work here. So we're just casting the net among other residents in the United States for potential employees.

The Burmese fill in the gap as they start a new life in a new city and a new country.

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