FORT MORGAN – For the last decade, Somali refugees have flocked to this conservative farm town on Colorado’s eastern plains. They’ve started a small halal mini-market and a restaurant, sent their children to the schools and worked at a meat processing plant.
As much as Fort Morgan’s small-town feel reminds many of their rural villages back home, some say they will feel like outsiders until they get what has so far eluded them: a permanent mosque. They are renting two small rooms for a makeshift version, for now.
They say they’ve tried to buy property to build a mosque but believe no one wants to sell to them.
“If we can own a mosque here, we will be more a part of the community,” said Abdinasser Ahmed, a local Somali leader and public schools teacher who fled war-torn Mogadishu, Somalia, in 2003, arrived in Fort Morgan in 2009 to work at the plant and is now a U.S. citizen.
Some longtime residents say they don’t want a mosque in their city of 12,000, a step too far especially at a time when fears of terrorism have grown following the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California. Putting a mosque “right in the center of town” would be a symbol “as if to claim the town,” said Candace Loomis, who runs a coffee shop and whose grandparents settled this country of sweeping horizons in a two-room sod house.
Divisions have been exacerbated by rhetoric on the Republican presidential campaign trail, including talk by Donald Trump and others about banning fellow refugees and Muslims from the U.S.
Each Islamic State-inspired terror attack, each domestic mass shooting, adds to the pain of the East African community here, Ahmed said. It’s a continuing challenge for refugees who fled violence themselves to integrate into a society whose citizens worry about that very same violence at home.
Residents say they want to be welcoming. They know they need foreign workers in a community with an aging, and dwindling, local-born population. But hesitations remain, especially about Muslim refugees.
“There’s a general feeling out there of, ‘Let’s slow this train down a bit,’” is how Morgan County Sheriff Jim Crone described local attitudes toward the security of the U.S. refugee resettlement program. “It’s a sense of: ‘We don’t mind people coming here. Just be part of the process.’”
More than 9,500 African refugees and asylum-seekers – among 50,000 from around the globe – settled in Colorado or moved here from other U.S. states in fiscal years 1980-2014, the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement reports.
Most went to Denver, Colorado Springs and Fort Collins; so-called “secondary migrants,” like those in Fort Morgan, come from those and other U.S. cities, including Minneapolis.
Like most immigrant communities in early stages, the Somalis have largely kept to themselves, fueling suspicion among some of the majority white population that they don’t want to assimilate. Most of the East Africans live in a crowded apartment complex on the other side of the railroad tracks from downtown.
The federal and state governments, Morgan County’s school district, Cargill, churches and social agencies have poured substantial resources over the years in settling the refugees and building bridges with the community. The most intensive focus is in county schools, where 800 out of 6,000 students take English as a second language
Cargill has set aside room for Muslim prayers. A third of Cargill’s 2,100 workers are East African.
In December, 150 East African workers walked off the job because they thought they were being refused prayer time. Cargill insisted they weren’t and fired the workers after they stayed away three days. The company has since rehired 10 workers, but an advocacy group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, has stepped in and filed discrimination complaints.
The incident escalated because of language. Many older Somalis don’t speak English, making it difficult for One Morgan County and other service organizations to build bridges with the white community and the Hispanics who have been here for generations.
“We have worked hard to build relationships,” said Michaela Holdridge, One Morgan County’s executive director. “But there can be a lot of misunderstanding.”
What happened in San Bernardino solidified for a lot of residents their worries about how the U.S. vets refugees, Crone said.
“Some people will throw the racist card to that attitude,” he said. “That’s not what it’s about. It’s about a lack of social structure in their homelands. To ignore that kind of stuff is just not proper. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to treat them any different.”
Jodi Walker runs Kids at Their Best, which works with children in high-poverty areas. She said most of Fort Morgan was unprepared for the sudden arrival of East Africans – and that assimilation would accelerate if more citizens got involved.
“This is where the Latinos were 25 years ago,” Walker said of the Somalis. “This is where the German-Russians were 100 years ago. This is the same story here, and it takes time, it takes education, and it takes kids.”
Since 2010, Ahmed has specialized in teaching math, English, translating, citizenship and other classes for East African middle and high school students. It’s a special calling for Ahmed; he remembers his own grade schools were destroyed in Mogadishu.
“The youth here are starting to get everything – speaking English, using cellphones, mixing with the community through their classmates,” Ahmed said.