Finding cultural balance a challenge for Somalis, employers


Ibrahim Mehemmed came to Wisconsin from Africa to escape violence and oppression.

He never expected his religious beliefs would create conflict here.

However, he and other Somali Muslim immigrants recently found themselves in a controversy over prayer breaks at their employer, Ariens Co., in Brillion.Ibrahim Mehemmed is one of about 50 Muslim employees at Ariens Co. who say the company has violated their religious freedom by enforcing a policy, effective Monday, Jan. 25, that doesn't accommodate prayer breaks.More than 50 Muslim employees at the manufacturer of snowblowers and lawn mowers wanted the company to continue a previous, more lenient practice of allowing them to leave their work stations at different times — such as at dawn and sunset — to pray as their faith requires of them.

“Pray and then go back to your job,” said Mehemmed, who lives in Green Bay, about 30 minutes from Brillion.

Ariens, however, said it was sticking with a policy that doesn’t accommodate special prayer breaks, despite having bent the rules some in the past. The company said it would begin enforcing the policy Monday.

With more Muslims on the assembly line, Ariens said, unscheduled work breaks of more than a few minutes could cost the company millions of dollars annually in lost productivity.

This time of year, the company’s 900 employees in Brillion are balancing the production of snowblowers and equipment for the upcoming lawn and garden season.

“We are really ramped up for spring,” company President Dan Ariens said, adding that a big snowstorm, such as the one that’s overwhelmed much of the East Coast and South this weekend, would drive demand for snowblowers.

New culture, challenges

There are pockets of Somali immigrants across Wisconsin, including Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay and smaller communities in the northern part of the state.

Mehemmed is a Somali from Ethiopia who came to the United States in 2010. He lived in California and Arizona before settling in Wisconsin.

This is his home now, Mehemmed said, and he doesn’t want to pick a fight with his employer or anybody else.

Aside from the prayer-break issue, the Somalis that Ariens hired through an employment agency have blended well with the rest of the workforce, according to the company and Mehemmed.

“We respect each other. We don’t have a problem with the other employees,” he said.

Many Somalis have come to the United States to escape civil war in their homeland. In the early 1990s, more than 300,000 Somalis were killed in civil war or from the famine that resulted when militia confiscated and blockaded food shipments.

About 800,000 refugees fled the country and headed, for the most part, to neighboring Kenya. From there, many of the refugees headed to the United States.

The Minneapolis area became the de facto Somali capital of North America, with up to 30,000 Somalis living there. Despite its cold climate, Minneapolis was attractive to the Somalis because of its job market and experienced social services agencies, according to the Wisconsin Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

But when entry-level factory jobs became scarce, many Somalis sought work in meat and poultry processing plants in smaller communities — places like Barron, in northwestern Wisconsin, where Jennie-O Turkey has operations.

The 2000 census recorded Barron’s population as 97.2% white. By 2012, approximately 13% of the population was Somali, the Commission on Civil Rights advisory committee said in a December 2012 report.

“The town was not prepared for the sudden increase in largely non-English speaking, Muslim residents,” the report said. “Schools and medical facilities did not have interpreters, and the (poultry) plant did not initially offer English classes for the new workers. … Students in Barron schools did not understand why Somali girls could wear hijab, but they could not wear hats. After the September 11 attacks, a Somali flag was desecrated, and there were other altercations.”

Language barrier

Nasra Xashi was among the first Somalis in Barron. She fled the civil war in her homeland, lived in refugee camps in Kenya for three years, and finally came to the U.S. in 1993.

At first, Xashi worked at the Jennie-O Turkey plant in Barron. She was fortunate in that she had learned English before coming to the U.S., but she said many Somalis struggle with the language barrier.

It’s especially a problem when there are issues in the workplace, said Xashi, now employed at Workforce Resources Inc., a nonprofit jobs agency in Barron.

Some of the early Somali immigrants have moved up to better jobs including management positions in the poultry plants. Barron now has Somali businesses, too, including stores that stock Halal foods, which conform with Islamic practices.

“We know that, in the United States, hard work pays off,” Xashi said.

Today, Xashi is as much a part of Barron as anyone else.

“Thanks to God, I have a job, I have a family and four children born in Barron. It’s my town,” she said.

Although in many ways the Somalis’ story is similar to the experience of other immigrants, often the Somalis came here suddenly as the result of war. They didn’t have time, or the resources, to plan for their new lives.

Also, “the Somali society may be one of the few societies in the United States that is African, black, Muslim and non-English speaking at the same time,” the Commission on Civil Rights report noted.

‘Hanging in there’

Abdiwahid Said, now a medical laboratory technician in Madison, fled Somalia as a child. Separated from his family, he stayed at a refugee camp in Kenya until coming to the United States in 1993.

“I was one of the lucky ones,” he said. But he quickly discovered how frustrating it was to live in a country where he couldn’t speak the language, and the culture was completely foreign to him.

“Thank God, I survived by hanging in there. I went to school, learned English and found my way,” he said.

Said has since returned to Somalia to visit his relatives, but he has no illusions about resettling in the nation, which has been ravaged by violence and economic hardship.

“When I went back, I couldn’t recognize anything. Imagine being in Madison or Milwaukee, and the people who collect the garbage decide not to come to work for three months. Just imagine that,” he said.

Like most Somalis, Said is Muslim. He hasn’t had problems getting prayer breaks where he’s worked, and he understands the importance of religion to the new arrivals.

“Without having that faith, I don’t think I would have survived, personally. And that is true for many people,” he said.

Given time for prayer, “people will be more productive, and they will enjoy what they do if they have that connection with their God.”

A question of disruption

By law, employers must provide “reasonable accommodation” for religious practices. Ariens Co. has prayer rooms for its workers on their regular, twice per shift, 10-minute breaks.

The controversy over prayer breaks — where the time of the prayer can vary depending on the season —has nothing to do with religious freedom or discrimination against Muslims, Dan Ariens said.

However, the Muslim employees at Ariens say their religious practices, rather than the company’s break schedule, should determine their prayer times. They also say the brief prayer periods would not be disrputive.

Much of the dispute comes down to cultural differences. “I wish that people would put themselves in these workers’ shoes, not from the perspective of these people requesting something … but here is someone’s faith coming under crossfire from their employer,” said Jaylani Hussein, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington, D.C., group that’s become an advocate for the Muslims at Ariens.

Prayer breaks aren’t supposed to disrupt factory production lines, said Othman Atta, executive director of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee.

Thousands of employers, including factories, provide prayer-break accommodations, according to Atta, an attorney.

He and some other Muslims say the religion’s five daily prayers can be done within certain time segments, and that it’s not as rigid as some people believe.

“My dad worked at Briggs & Stratton for many years … and if he was on the assembly line and couldn’t take a prayer break, he would have to make it up when he got home,” Atta said.

Often, refugees come from countries where prayer requirements are much different. It takes a while for them to learn the religious practices of their adopted country, if that’s the path they choose.

“We all feel strongly about our faith,” Atta said, but there are also workplace rules that have to be followed.


About Rick Barrett

author thumbnailRick Barrett covers manufacturing, telecom and agriculture. He has received Best in Business awards from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers and was co-recipient of a Barlett & Steele award for investigative business journalism.



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