The Pandemic Is Just the Latest Threat Refugees in Abilene Face

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Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.

Mfaume Lawi has already lost his home several times. The first was during an attack on his village in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the civil war in the late 1990s. After fleeing to Tanzania, he lived in a precarious hut in a refugee camp for almost two decades. When he was accepted for resettlement in the United States in 2017, Lawi moved with his wife and five children to Abilene, Texas, into a home that had room for everyone. Within a year, an electrical issue caused a house fire that burned it to the ground; though everyone survived, they once again lost everything. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when Lawi worries about losing his home if he cannot pay his rent, his fear is very real.

Lawi is a stacker at AbiMar Foods, a processing plant that makes cookies and crackers and employs almost 600 people, 130 of whom are former refugees. Abilene is home to refugees from 27 countries, according to Susanna Lubanga, the director of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a resettlement agency with an office in Abilene. Lawi’s family is part of a small but thriving diaspora of new arrivals from Congo that enjoy support from local churches and the city government. Until the COVID-19 crisis, Abilene seemed like the kind of place where Lawi and his family could enjoy security at last.

But when Lawi heard in early April that there was a confirmed COVID-19 case at the processing plant, he was confident the next major crisis had come. “Safety is really important to human beings. I was so worried,” he said through an interpreter. The options in front of him were clear: Work, become infected, and possibly endanger his family; or stay at home and lose the job that supports them.

Mfaume Lawi and his daughters.Mfaume Lawi and his daughters in Abilene.  Courtesy Mfaume Lawi

Lawi’s dilemma is one that many workers around the world are facing. But former refugees like Lawi can be particularly vulnerable in this pandemic. Many former refugees are from rural parts of their home countries and had limited access to education. They might not read or write in their home languages, which makes it even harder to try to learn to read and write in English; they might only speak their own dialects, and their work experience is often constrained by the opportunities in overcrowded refugee camps where the average wait time to leave is close to 30 years. A lack of education, work experience, and English language skills have made it especially hard for many former refugees to understand the scope of the pandemic and follow advice on social distancing.

Even without a pandemic, resettlement can present what feel like insurmountable obstacles. But agencies work to keep families and people of similar diaspora together because of their shared language and past, so they can quickly feel like extended family. Still, the fact that the community is often together—living in apartments near each other, spending time in each other’s homes outside of work—can be deadly in a pandemic.

Former refugees make up about 20 percent of the workforce at the AbiMar Foods plant. Because of that high number, the company’s outbreak was also a refugee-community issue. The close-knit nature of the community meant that those early days were especially crucial to stop the spread.

The first outbreak was confirmed at AbiMar on March 31. By April 13, after there were seven confirmed cases, AbiMar voluntarily closed. The company faced criticism that it took almost two weeks after the first case to close their facilities, and the delay possibly exacerbated the already-existing communication issues with their employees. Other food processing plants in Texas have become hot spots for the spread of COVID-19, with hundreds of cases reported. In May, workers at the Tyson Foods plant in Amarillo  accused the company of failing to protect them as the virus spread through close working conditions.

AbiMar CEO Jaime Correa said that the company implemented measures that exceeded many other food processing plants, beginning with paying for testing for all of their employees. By May 11, 57 employees total had tested positive.

Since the IRC office opened in Abilene 16 years ago, Lubanga has worked closely with AbiMar, advocating for refugees and IRC’s clients. She calls AbiMar’s response to the virus “pretty incredible.” It’s consistent with what she’s seen of the company’s investment in their refugee employees over the years. In her view, AbiMar puts in “a little more work on the front end for translation and orientation, but it really pays off in the long run because our clients stay. They want to work.”

However, COVID-19 revealed significant gaps in the communication between AbiMar’s management and their employees, who speak multiple languages. Correa also realized the employees from the refugee community “have been very isolated in terms of outside communication.” In Lubanga’s experience, refugees who come from a camp do not always seek medical help or take the kind of preventative measures that are needed to contain the virus. “With such limited access in the camps, you only went to the doctor when you had symptoms,” Lubanga said. Lawi and two other employees said they did not begin social distancing until after the plant’s closure.

AbiMar has 15 full-time employees who also work as translators and community liaisons. At the end of March, they contracted another interpreter to help bridge the language barriers for workers who speak Spanish, French, Swahili, Nepali, and Kinyarwanda. But the process has not been seamless. Initially, AbiMar told its employees that they would pay full paychecks for anyone who was diagnosed as having COVID-19, as well as those who agreed to self-isolate as the company moved toward reopening.

The options in front of him were clear: Work, become infected, and possibly endanger his family; or stay at home and lose the job that supports them.

For a few weeks, Lawi stayed at home like he was asked and received a weekly check on Thursdays. The company reopened on April 21 after closing for a week to deep clean and sanitize its facilities. Lawi’s friends began returning to work. In late April, according to Correa, AbiMar asked 10 percent of their employees to come back to their facilities. By late May, 75 percent of employees were back at work.

Luis Felipe Velasquez Lopez, AbiMar’s director of operations, said the company implemented new guidelines for behavior at work to prevent the spread of the virus. They mandated temperature checks and provided personal protective equipment (PPE) to workers and built plexiglass barriers where social distancing wasn’t possible. They translated two-hour, one-on-one training sessions for each employee and quizzed them to ensure that everyone understood how the virus was spread and how hand washing, social distancing, mask-wearing, and other procedures could help stem the infection rate.

Still, Lawi’s call didn’t come. On May 20, Lawi received a paycheck that was less than 15 percent of his normal pay, and on May 27, he got no check at all. With rent due in 10 days, he began to panic. “In Africa, I would have sold something from my house to pay for things,” he said. “Here, it is more complicated.”

When asked about Lawi’s significantly reduced check, Correa initially declined to comment on individual employees, but said that the company had reduced pay for self-isolating employees to 60 percent of their full-time pay—a fact he said was communicated to all employees. Lawi, however, did not understand that his pay would be lowered.

As he worries about keeping a roof over his family’s head, Lawi’s greatest concern is his job. Correa acknowledged that AbiMar “will not be able to sustain many months like April” where output was low compared to previous months. He said the company is “rebalancing expenses” and “running simulations” in preparation for another possible outbreak, while still moving cautiously toward “a more normal situation.” As of June 10, Abilene had reported 249 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Abimar continues to test employees every two to three weeks, and no new cases have been reported. All but five of the employees who tested positive have recovered fully; none have serious symptoms.

On May 28, Lawi got the call he had been waiting for: His manager told him to come back to work. In an email, Correa confirmed that the low check was a mistake and that Lawi would be receiving back pay in his next two paychecks, “in addition to the normal payment as he will be back at work with us.”

Lawi feels nothing but relief. “As long as I can work, it will be OK,” he said. “I am glad to work.”

This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit news organization. 

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