Sixth in a series of stories from the latest edition of Inclusion magazine, a Courier publication devoted to the diversity of our community.
WATERLOO, Iowa --- The first immigrants from Burma to arrive in Waterloo were mostly men drawn by jobs at Tyson Fresh Meats.
Now they are being joined by wives and families. Some estimate the Burmese population in the Cedar Valley has swelled to 800.
"The initial 150 or so, I knew them by name, I knew where they lived, I was involved in their life every day," said Rick Rustad, a chaplain at Tyson, which employs about 350 Burmese. "I had a good handle on where they were and what they needed."
But as numbers grew, the demand for assistance prompted the mobilization of several agencies, religious organizations and volunteers.
Then, Burma Iowa Friends formed to pull everyone together.
Beth Cox, a member of the Black Hawk County Board of Health, initiated the organization in December 2011. About a dozen people --- occasionally including city councilmen --- meet monthly to swap updates.
"When we saw such a large influx in a pretty short amount of time, the people who were working to provide support could easily become burned out," Rustad said. "BIF became a place where we could support each other and realize we're not alone in helping this new community.
"We're talking about the frustrations, the victories, the successes and better coordinating our efforts and getting the word out," he added.
As part of a recruitment package offered in 2010 and 2011, Tyson provided newcomers with a set of dishes, cleaning supplies, personal toiletries, an air mattress and a pillow. Staff at the meatpacking plant helped immigrants find housing, get state identification cards, set up bank accounts, get health assessments and buy groceries.
Employees were transported to work until groups could put money together to buy cars.
Transportation remains a major obstacle. Then there are language barriers. Refugees come from several Burmese states including Karenni, Karen and Chin. Natives of each state speak different languages and dialects. Rustad estimates as many as 10 languages are spoken.
BIF gives coordinates assistance and has built a network to bridge gaps and address issues.
"If there's a problem that's recognized in one place, and there's a solution somewhere else, we're kind of talking about that to get people to the right places," Cox said.
Rustad recalled helping a man whose Iowa license got suspended because of an unpaid fine in another state. One group called after their home was burglarized. When police found the teenagers responsible the residents were reluctant to press charges because they thought it cost money.
Others needed assistance with court cases, car problems or insurance claims.
"It just means helping people who've never done this before. The whole thing, it just takes a lot of time," Rustad said.
He noted Tyson chaplain services are available to employees and family members. That can involve pastoral care or simply navigating life in America.
"To come together and know that we have a growing number of Americans here in Waterloo that are helping just really gives you courage to go on," he said.
At Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where a large number of Burmese attend, Sister Kathleen Grace helps with applying for green cards, which allow foreign nationals to live and work permanently in the United States. Burmese began coming to the church as early as May 2010 and now make up about half of the congregation, Grace said.
The number of Burmese children enrolled at Sacred Heart School is increasing. Earlier in the school year, emails circulated about the need bus transportation.
Gini Berg, a retired University of Northern Iowa professor, fell in love with Burmese culture when she traveled there years ago. She collects furniture UNI students leave behind for refugees. She helps immigrants with taxes for free.
Last year, a soccer coach spoke about opportunities for kids to play soccer, popular in Burma. However, transportation to and from practice and cost of programs is challenging.
BIF's collaboration has created awareness. The Waterloo and Cedar Falls branches of the American Association of University Women now offer English classes using Rosetta Stone, a computer software program. Many Burmese haven't attended school and are intimidated by formal education.
Hawkeye Community College Metro Campus has seen an increasing number of Burmese pursuing their GED, the equivalent of a high school diploma.
The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Des Moines recently opened an office at First United Methodist Church on West Fourth Street, across from Sacred Heart, through the Black Hawk County Refugee Services Program. Cox hopes to partner with staff there to further ease the transition for immigrants and find jobs in addition to Tyson.
Angela Graham, a public health nurse with the county health department, has been active with the Burmese community since the beginning and appreciates the one-stop shop established by BIF.
"I can send out maybe one email to one person about the things we need, and other people can help deliver those," she said.
"We have agencies that can sometimes get things to people, but they usually have to go there and sign up," she added. "Ours is a lot more informal. We see a need and take care of it."
Graham devotes much of her personal time, too. When Tun Than and his wife, Ku Ma, asked her to stay with them at the hospital for the delivery of what would become the first Burmese baby born in Waterloo, she did. Lily, 2, calls her Grandma.
Graham has since documented the births of other babies in photos.
"Anybody who has helped the Burmese people, they want to help more," she said.
Tun, an interpreter at Tyson, also serves as eyes and ears for community needs.
"Right now the Burmese group is bigger, so they are learning," said Tun, who arrived in Waterloo in September 2010. "They're helping each other."
Before, those who spoke English and had a car stayed busy driving families to Wal-Mart, accompanying them to doctor appointments or translating mail. People needed education on how to apply for assistance programs, like food stamps, use a furnace, turn on the stove or what medication to take for pain. Situations could otherwise turn dangerous, he said.
Seeing people achieve their goals is an inspiration, Tun said.
He pointed to the progression of his own life. He and his wife had $400 to their name when Ku Ma insisted they spend half on a camera for their daughter's birth.
"Finally, I said, 'OK,' because I wanted to have a picture, too, for remembrance," he said. "I had only $200 left when I moved over here."
He left her behind in Illinois to find a job. Once he did, his life "started changing, changing, changing."
They now have a furnished home in Evansdale, including a couch from Berg's finds at UNI, and are expecting their second child.