In small-town Missouri, a
Somali refugee Markapo Pule last week browsed the produce department of the Supermercado Tortilleria, a Mexican grocery and bakery in Noel.
By DONALD BRADLEY
The Kansas City Star
June 11, 2012
NOEL, Mo. -- The Elk River makes the turn under the overhanging cliffs at the edge of this Ozarks town to flow just below the quaint business district.
On a recent afternoon, customers shopped for fresh eggs and calf feed in Landon’s Feed & Seed. A man touched his brim to two women coming out of the cafe. Senior citizens chatted in front of the post office.
Then a young man’s shout filled the street: “F… you, n…..r!”
He jumped in a pickup where a friend waited and sped away. Inside an old storefront, now an Islamic mosque, those preparing to pray carried on.
It happens here, the n-word. Other slurs for other people, too. From the heart they come — loud, with spit.
And the river keeps rolling. Doing what it’s done for decades — bring visitors to pretty little Noel, nicknamed the Christmas City.
But now, amid all this Ozark Mountain beauty and down-home charm, people fight for the soul of a town.
“Some people don’t hide the fact they don’t like what’s going on here,” said Mayor James Carroll, who tries to keep things calm.
There’s no denying a seething undertone of discomfort bred by a mixing of cultures. The town gets too quiet, with too many stares. Some people are scared.
In recent years, hundreds of immigrants have come to Noel to work in a Tyson Foods chicken plant. The town counts among its 2,000 people several hundred each of whites, Hispanics and Africans. Throw in the Pacific Islanders and Asians, and Noel is its own little melting pot with a main drag no longer than a couple of football fields.
“You can sit right here and watch the world go by,” fourth-grade teacher Susan Brisco said from a bench under the feed store’s awning.
People walked past in Muslim hijabs, straw hats favored by Hispanics, kufis, Asian paddy hats and, yes, John Deere caps.
An African store sits next to the train tracks. The mosque, in what used to be a hardware store, faces a Mexican restaurant. And what kind of small town would it be without something like a Lonnie’s 66 service station?
Many of the town’s old guard seem welcoming toward the newcomers. They know the influx has angered some of their neighbors and burdened the school district, but they know, too, the town wouldn’t amount to much without them. They also realize the horror that brought some of them here. Civil war, genocide, famine ...
From the far side of the world, new arrivals have found a measure of peace in a tiny Ozarks town.
“There is hope here in life,” Abdul Rahaman Nur, a Somali, said in the rear of the African store where many of the Somali men take evening meals. “You can build a future, live without fear. That is all we want.”
But some locals think sharing their town takes something from themselves. Foreign words scrape the chalkboard. Ethnic garb clashes with their neighborhoods, and their lives.
“I never thought I’d see the day when a man would walk down Main Street wearing a dress,” a coffee drinker said in Kathy’s Kountry Kitchen in reference to African tribal wear.
Two other people told The Star they wouldn’t care a lick if the Tyson plant and its 1,500 jobs burned to the ground. Some here think more of those jobs should have gone to locals.
Last October, about 130 mostly Somali workers walked out of the plant during a dispute with officials over prayer time. As they gathered on Main Street, fear grew that the incident could turn violent. Several armed local men were stopped by law enforcement, according to Carroll, the mayor.
A dozen Highway Patrol troopers and sheriff’s officials arrived in force.
“Nothing happened, but it does show what’s going on here,” Carroll, who some credit with keeping a lid on things in Noel, said recently as he walked Main Street.
He grew up when the town was all white and saw it change during his years as a mail carrier. Now 61 and retired, he’s become sort of the town’s secretary general, an emissary between the immigrant groups. He’s learned a little Swahili, Spanish and Somali. He knows when the Muslims pray. He shops in the Mexican market. He visits with tribal elders.
Carroll also has reached out to the longtime residents. He doesn’t hear the ugly talk.
“People know I don’t go for that,” he said.
Nancy Zeorlin was like most in town — she didn’t know what to think when the refugees started showing up.
“But then James talked about why they came — for a chance at a better life, to work hard and to raise their kids in peace,” she said one recent morning behind the motel she used to run before selling it to her daughter and son-in-law.
“Well, those are all things I’ve believed in my whole life.”
She paused a moment as she sipped her coffee beside the river.
“I just don’t like the way they drive.”
True, Carroll said, smiling. The Somalis, particularly, have difficulty behind the wheel. So much so, the Highway Patrol came to town and offered special driving lessons.
Noel is like a different era. On a recent evening, a group of youngsters, all colors from all over the world, were walking back from the swimming hole when one jumped up and grabbed hold of a street sign.
“Hey! You kids stop that!” town marshal Charles Thacker yelled from across the street.
The boy doing the hanging immediately let go and held up a “sorry” hand. Some of the others looked scared to be in trouble.
“Go on now,” Thacker said, sounding like Andy Taylor of Mayberry.
They walked on.
“Good kids,” Thacker said.
If you don’t know much about Noel, Mo., ask someone older.
They’re likely to tell a story about Kate Smith, Jesse James, Henry Fonda, a famous bank robbery, the cliffs over the highway or the highway itself.
The place has history.
Back in the 1930s, the town’s postmaster came up with the idea of inviting people to send holiday cards through Noel to get the “Christmas City” postmark. (Locals pronounce their town to rhyme with “bowl.”) Kate Smith, the singer, pushed the idea to her national radio audience.
As a result, a half-million Christmas cards from every state came through Noel. The practice continues.
Hollywood producer Darryl Zanuck brought a movie crew to make the 1939 western “Jesse James” for 20th Century Fox. Much of the filming was done around Pineville, but stars Henry Fonda and Tyrone Power stayed in Noel.
Tragedy hit in 1989 when two brothers kidnapped Dan Short, manager of the State Bank of Noel, from his home in Arkansas, drove to the bank and forced him to open the safe. After getting $70,000, the brothers took Short to northeast Oklahoma where they duct-taped him to a chair weighted with a concrete block and threw him off a bridge into Grand Lake. Alive.
Noel by then had been going downhill because U.S. 71 had been moved several miles to the east.
“If you were going from Kansas City to New Orleans, you came through here,” said Carroll, the mayor. “After they moved the highway, the town just died.”
Not even the scenic overhanging cliffs could keep the tourists coming through.
Some business people got together and decided to open a chicken plant. It went through a series of owners, including Purina, which to the annoyance of residents added a rendering operation that stunk up the town.
In the early 1990s, Tyson Foods took over and got the relationship with the town off to a good start by shutting down the rendering operation.
Carroll said the Tyson plant also paid for lights for the town’s ball field and provided chicken dinners for community events.
“They didn’t want any credit for doing those things,” Carroll said.
But some of that good will left town when the immigrants arrived.
According to a 2002 report by the University of Missouri Extension Service, Tyson recruited Hispanic workers from border towns in Texas. Early on, the immigrant families were harassed and their homes tagged with graffiti, the report said.
But word spread over the years and other immigrants moved in. In 2008, a Tyson beef-processing plant in Emporia, Kan., downsized, sending even more workers to Noel.
“They told their friends and relatives about the job opportunities, which resulted in more refugees,” Tyson spokesman Worth Sparkman said last week.
When a group of Somali men showed up one night at Arthur Murray’s Motel in Noel, a puzzled desk clerk asked where they were from.
“Kansas,” one said.
Today, nearly a thousand of the plant’s 1,500 workers are considered minorities, Sparkman said. Hourly wages run from $9.05 to $10.70, with the average on the high end.
The plant, next to the River Ranch Resort and across from Rosa’s Mexican Store, runs 24/7, three shifts. Tractor-trailers constantly run in and out — live chickens going in, packaged legs, thighs and boneless breasts headed out.
The processing work is hard, dangerous, cold, and, according to workers, a little nasty. But it is meat processing. Nasty is on the menu.
Still, workers appreciate Tyson for giving them jobs. Whatever the duty, it is better than what they had before.
“Somalis come from a place of civil war,” said Farah Burale, who works at Tyson and helps foreign workers get accustomed to working in America. “There was no government. No police. Kids with AK-47s. They all know somebody killed there.
“Here, they work, make money to live and even send some home.”
Noel works better for them than a large city. Rent here is usually only $450 or so. They live cheap.
Plus, as Burale said: “Chicken plants don’t need English.”
At Noel Elementary School, students are sometimes pulled out of class to translate for other children’s parents.
“We struggle with language barriers every day,” said Mark Stanton, superintendent of the McDonald County R-1 School District. “We’ve had a tremendous problem finding employees who speak Somali and Hmong and other languages.”
At a recent meeting with parents, Stanton’s words were translated into four languages.
The school has had to modify curricula to help new students catch up. Simply put, the district can’t find enough second-language tutors. And if it could, it would be expensive for a district already struggling in this economy.
“But our people don’t make excuses,” Stanton said. “Every day our teachers meet these challenges — they find a way to teach these kids.”
The 2002 University of Missouri report cited school problems such as immigrant children not being allowed to play sports and a bus driver forbidding Spanish from being spoken.
Stanton wasn’t in Noel then, but he’s heard the stories.
“This school and this community have come a long way,” he said.
Kids don’t seem to care about the differences. They play together and jump off the same flat rock into the river. A recent group included youngsters from Mexico, Micronesia and a white boy from Georgia.
“We get along with everyone,” Ilse Morales, 14, said with a shrug.
Thacker, the marshal, used to walk Main Street and give out candy to younger kids. He stopped when he tried to break up a fight between two adults and couldn’t get to the men.
“Kids got in the middle wanting candy,” Thacker said.
Crime, he said, has not gone up since the recent influx of refugees. Most of his trouble comes from the thousand or so out-of-towners who show up on weekends to canoe and raft the Elk.
Does any business say small-town America more than a feed store?
The bench in front of Landon’s Feed & Seed says it even more. Sit a spell.
As Faduma Sugule, a Somali refugee, did so recently, a local woman, Linda Billemeyer, joined her.
Sugule and her husband and their children fled the civil war in Somalia.
“It’s scary here, too,” she said, “but I love America.”
Working inside, Jayston Landon said immigrants often come to the store because many have goats and chickens.
“Sure, I know the stereotypes, but in the end we’re just all people,” said Landon, a student at the University of Arkansas.
As Somali men gathered and smoked outside the African store, a pickup truck passed by blaring Johnny Cash on the radio. “I hear the train a comin’. It’s rollin’ round the bend…”
The men watched without a word.
Among all the immigrant groups in Noel, the Somalis seem farthest from home. Lonely. They stand in front of the store as if they’re waiting for a bus that never comes. Many are here without family. They take meals in the back of the African store because they do not cook. On a recent evening they ate plates of fish, rice, lettuce and banana.
Homesick, yes, but certainly in no hurry to return to a country rife with war and tribal conflict.
“Over there, we would fight each other,” Omar Admed said, pointing to a friend and naming their tribes. “Here, we are brothers.”
There is little interaction between ethnic groups, but a few shop at each other’s stores. And Manuel Ortiz was ready to hire a Muslim teenage girl for his Mexican grocery. But then she noticed he sold beer.
“I told her tax from that beer goes to the school and community,” said Ortiz, who came to Noel from Chicago. “But it was too much for her religion. I get that. We’re different. We’re all different in Noel.”
Too different for longtime resident Linda Miller. She says the immigrants are taking over.
“You say something to them and they go ‘No comprende,’ ” Miller, 65, said with a wag of her head and with accent on the scorn. “They understand. They just don’t like us. You won’t see a white person on Main Street anymore.”
Jeff Honderich walks downtown daily. He’s the town’s only doctor. Check out his waiting room and you might see a Hispanic, Somali, Kenyan, Pacific Islander, Laotian, Sudanese and whoever else has come to Noel to find work.
“When most people in this town grew up, they looked and talked like everybody else,” Honderich said. “But the world isn’t that way. These people have come here to work, and because they have, their children will be better off than they are and that is the American way.”
So is the welcoming hand.
Nancy Zeorlin, the woman who used to run the motel, went into the African store to meet the woman who owns the place where large bags of rice stand in rows.
“She was wary at first, but wouldn’t you be?” Zeorlin said. “We talked a bit and she was so glad to see me. After a while, she took my hand.”
As for her town, she knows change comes slowly.
“I’ve been here 30 years and I’m still a Yankee.”
People come, people go. But regardless of who walks down Main Street, or what they wear on their heads, Noel is still the Christmas City. And the river keeps on flowing.
Source: Kansas City Star