Refugees came to Noel for opportunity. Tyson’s plant closure leaves their futures uncertain
Town is tucked in the hills of the Ozarks near Arkansas and Oklahoma
Main Street in Noel, Missouri, on Sept. 23. (Photo by Clara Bates/Missouri Independent)
NOEL, Mo. — On a Sunday afternoon in rural southwest Missouri, dozens of friends and family gather at a modest one-story home to sing and celebrate in the language of their homeland, more than 8,000 miles away.
Some arrive from church, crowding into a living room to celebrate two brothers — one turning 7 and the other 17. Speeches and blessings are delivered in a mix of English and Karen, the language of the Myanmar refugees who make up most of the partygoers.
Years ago, they escaped persecution in Myanmar, where the government has targeted various ethnic minorities for decades.
They’ve constructed tight-knit communities in Noel — and the town is all that many of the children have ever known. Kids bounce on a trampoline outside the party in the crisp fall air, the 7-year-old’s clip-on tie dangling haphazardly as a rendition of “Happy Birthday” breaks out.
But an air of anxiety coexists with the revelry.
A 10-year-old guest talks about all he’ll lose when his family has to move — pointing to the hill where he loved going sledding every winter.
“I’m kind of sad,” he says between bites of noodles off a paper plate. “I’ll miss my friends from school.”
In one corner, the birthday boys’ father huddles with a church volunteer, ticking through questions on a job application, some of which he doesn’t understand.
“Computer skills?” the volunteer asks.
For three decades, migrants have been drawn to the town to work at the Tyson poultry plant, which offered jobs that didn’t require English proficiency at higher-than-minimum-wage pay. Immigrants from Mexico arrived in the 1990s, followed years later by refugees and migrants from countries in Africa, Asia, Central America and the Pacific Islands.
They came to Noel — which had a population of 2,124 people in 2020 — in search of a better life. But with the plant now shuttered, many of its 1,533 workers are scrambling to find new jobs.
Job prospects in the remote surrounding areas are slim for many of those laid off in the plant closure. For the migrants who call Noel home, they can seem even slimmer. Many have already begun moving away, scattering across the country.
Pastor Joshua Manning, who helped organize multilingual Christian church services for the last seven years, speaks of the plant closure with despondency.
He provided space in the Community Baptist Church for services in three different Micronesian languages and Spanish. He led an English-Karen service himself.
Manning wondered whether the birthday party was doubling as a goodbye party.
“It’s like watching a family member die,” Manning says. “There’s mourning, grief.”
‘The American Dream’
Tucked in the hills of the Ozarks near Arkansas and Oklahoma, Noel is a summer tourist destination that spans just two square miles.
The Elk River winds through it, attracting canoers and rafters. A small main drag features an ice cream shop, Mexican restaurant and African store. Wedged between the river and stark bluffs, beneath a limestone overhang, is a stretch of highway long considered the most scenic in the region.
And just off the highway, over a bridge, is Tyson — the economic hub of the town whose population numbered in the hundreds until 1980 and just recently surpassed 2,000.
“The county has kind of grown up around that plant,” Mayor Terry Lance said, “and it’s basically in the middle of everything now.”
Several former workers interviewed by The Independent said they learned about the closure on Facebook or in the media before Tyson informed them. Rep. Dirk Deaton, a Republican who grew up in Noel, said the company gave no indication it was planning to close the facility, and even spent money last year on renovations.
“They’re here for the long haul,” he remembers believing. “So there was really no indication that it was coming or that’s what was going to happen until — until it was.”
The decision to close the plant, which was announced in August and effective this month, was made to cut costs amid falling profits, Tyson said. It was among six plants the company announced it is closing this year to make operations more efficient.
Of those six plants, the Noel plant employed the most people.
The poultry plant transformed the makeup of a small, nearly all-white town in the span of just three decades. More than one-third of Noel’s overall population is now foreign-born, 36%, which is nine times higher than the state’s average.
Then-giant meatpacker Hudson Foods bought the plant in 1972 and set out to ramp up production. With the advent of industrial practices to breed chickens and automate processing — the rise of “big chicken” — came reduced prices and soaring demand nationally. (“America Goes Chicken Crazy,” the New York Times proclaimed in 1984.)
Americans ate 40 pounds of chicken in 1970; by 2000, that number had nearly doubled, to 77 pounds.
Hudson needed more workers to keep up. They said the jobs couldn’t be filled in a town that then had just over 1,000 residents — in an industry the company characterized as too hazardous and difficult for most American workers to do.
So the company recruited immigrants from Mexico to the town, at first putting them up in roach-infested hotel rooms. Over time, families joined and set down roots.
Reports of the ‘90s and early aughts portrayed a difficult arrival: The homes of migrants being tagged with graffiti and kids not being allowed to play on sports teams were some examples University of Missouri Extension gave in a 2002 report. Over time, though, accounts became more positive.
Tyson acquired Hudson in 1997.
There were seven Hispanic students at Noel Elementary School in 1992, making up less than 2% of the student body. A decade later, there were 240 — half of all students.
“Most people are going to Noel,” the report said, “in search of the American dream.”
‘On the run’
On a late Sunday afternoon last month, a group of Somali men were the only patrons at Paisa’s Mexican Food, a sit-down restaurant on Noel’s main drag. Around the corner, the Karen-English church service had just let out.
Around 15 years ago large groups of more far-flung migrants began arriving in Noel, from Somalia, Micronesia, Myanmar and elsewhere.
Some, especially the Somali and Karen, came to the country as refugees, eligible for resettlement because they were persecuted or feared persecution in their home country.
One of them was Pwe Loe, from the Karen (“kuh-ren”) ethnic minority in Myanmar, formerly called Burma — a now 39-year-old single mother of five children, whose singing opens the weekly services at the Community Baptist Church, run by Manning. The white congregants sing in English in tandem with congregants singing in Karen.
Pwe Loe, who has an expressive face and wears her black hair pulled back into a ponytail, said her life in Myanmar was characterized by constant flight.
She was “on the run all [the] time,” she said, fleeing Burmese soldiers in the jungle with other members of her village. The Karen have been persecuted for decades, along with other ethnic minorities in Myanmar.
In 2011 she made it to a refugee camp in neighboring Thailand — an improvement, she said, because she no longer had to run. But there was no work, and refugees relied on humanitarian aid groups for food. After qualifying for refugee resettlement in the United States that July, she was moved to Austin, Texas, but said it was hard to find work.
Two years later, she says a friend told her Tyson was looking for workers, so she and her family moved to southwest Missouri. She relied on the network of Karen people in town to help her adjust and came to like Noel.
Refugees are free to move around the country and many do. They must apply for lawful permanent resident status after one year and can apply for citizenship after five years (Pwe Loe is a citizen).
Refugees are expected to be self-sufficient after just 90 days in the country, when federal direct assistance, including help paying for food and rent, ends. Support services to help refugees find and maintain employment are available for the first five years they’re in the country. The government doesn’t track secondary resettlement.
Pwe Loe worked on the poultry line deboning chicken thighs — slicing out bones using a knife, on an assembly line, which involves highly repetitive movements for hours on end.
At Tyson, the starting wage was $16.35.
Many of the Karen migrants said it was a job they were proud to have — a job that, while difficult, enabled them to support their families.
Several Karen churchgoers in September wore Tyson merchandise they’d been gifted: A camouflage baseball cap with the red oval logo, a smattering of red t-shirts. In the living room of the family that hosted the party, a “5 Years of Service” silver plaque bearing the Tyson logo was hung up on the wall, still in its plastic protective wrapping.
‘Everything has an ending’
Manning will step down as pastor of the Community Baptist Church on December 1, to go full-time with his current job at the post office, he said.
Hundreds of migrants have passed through the church in his seven years leading and organizing services — the size of services ebbing and flowing as some moved away and others arrived.
The essential fact of new arrivals, though — and the need to provide space for them to worship — remained steady. Some, like the core group of Karen families at the party, stuck around.
Now, he said, the church will take another form, reinventing itself.
The town will change too.
In the span of three weeks — from late September to October — “for sale” signs in Noel seemed to proliferate. At least one store on Main Street, which coordinated sending remittances home to Somalia, closed.
Three suitcases are near the entrance to a Somali-run store on the same stretch, called Sky Grocery. One of its owners, a young Somali woman who was born in Kenya because of the civil war in Somalia, said she moved to Noel just five months ago from Minnesota to help run the store.
She expects it will soon close.
“The majority are moving,” she said of other Somali refugees, “to different states.”
“Everything has an ending.”
Most white residents of Noel got along with their foreign-born neighbors and appreciated their contributions to the local economy, according to Mike Newman, executive director of RAISE, a nonprofit which provides refugee services in Southwest Missouri.
“But there was certainly a minority,” Newman added, “that said they would be fine if all the immigrants and refugees left Noel — and now we’re going to see if that’s going to be a good thing for them.”
Around 250 workers, or 16% of the workforce, plan to relocate to other Tyson facilities, said Derek Burleson, the company’s spokesperson, who added that the company held hiring events after announcing the closure. (The company offered them a $5,000 transfer bonus and up to $5,000 for moving expenses, Burleson said.)
Tyson provided a $1,000 bonus for those who’d stay until the closing date. Some of the church volunteers at the birthday party speculated that workers may have been hoping for the best, or unsure how to proceed in applying for new jobs while they were still working.
Now that the end has arrived, they’re scrambling for work or leaving. The town’s mayor said Noel could lose 20% of its population.
Their final paycheck arrived last Friday. A church-run food pantry has seen “increased need,” said Chloe Pfrimmer, who helps run the pantry and estimates around 70 families came to the most recent one.
Deaton, the state representative for the area, said the federal government should do more to help the refugees who came to Noel for jobs.
“They have something of an obligation, you know, to not leave those people just in limbo,” he said.
But government assistance to refugees is limited and short term, said Emily Frazier, assistant professor of human geography at Missouri State University in Springfield, who studies refugee resettlement.
The system is designed to integrate refugees, especially economically, and bring them to self-sufficiency quickly. They’re subject to the same challenges any American faces when losing a job, like the concurrent loss of health insurance: a more “systemic” American problem, Frazier said.
“Losing your job,” she said, “means losing benefits, security, possibly housing — especially in states like Missouri…There’s just not a social safety net for anyone, let alone refugees.”
Migrants’ language proficiency varies widely — many of the Karen adults, like Pwe Lo, speak limited English, which constrains job options. The federal government’s quick timeline for refugees to become economically independent, Frazier said, can “often supersede their ability to really learn English or…get their GED or get higher education.”
Refugees have to work quickly after arriving in the U.S., in jobs that require little English, and are then swept up in that difficult, time-intensive work.
Brittany Martin, who teaches English as a second language, said few of her adult students worked at Tyson because the company “works a lot of overtime and so kept their employees very busy.”
Tyson is accepting bids for the plant, but it isn’t clear yet what will replace it.
Pwe Loe is getting worried. She is surprised to hear, at the party, news that many of the Somali have already moved away for work.
She said she would apply to a nearby plant, Simmons Foods, in Southwest City, but worries, because she’s heard it doesn’t have many open positions.
Those who stayed on until the closure were, Pwe Loe among them, promised an extra $1,000. But other plants in the area may have filled their openings, and the time it takes to find a new job could quickly eat up the bonus.
Pwe Loe worries about taking her children from school and their friends. Three of her sons are school-aged — 14, 13 and 9. She also has an 18-year-old daughter who attends a nearby college and a one-year-old son.
If they stay in Noel, she said, she may not be able to pay their bills. But if they leave, it will be “so difficult for my kids.” Sinking into the couch in the entry room of her home, baby asleep in the next room, she looks around with apprehension.
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