A ray of hope in Springdale


SPRINGDALE, Ark. - For nearly two decades, John Moody made his living killing, gutting and packing poultry on the line at Tyson Foods, the nation's largest meat producer and processor.

It was unpleasant work - smelly, repetitive and dangerous. He severed the tip of his index finger on a factory saw.

Moody was paid $3.25 an hour when he started there in the early 1980s, and made $7.99 when he left in 1995.

But for someone who grew up in the poverty-ridden Marshall Islands, coming to America and working in even a menial job opened "a door of opportunity," he said.

And Tyson, looking for workers to perform tasks that many Americans avoid, had plenty of jobs. That was the message that Moody spread "every time I went back home."

Today, as many as 4,000 Marshallese have followed Moody's path and live in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. It is a classic story of immigration and assimilation American-style - newcomers voluntarily starting on the bottom rung of society in hopes of forging a better life.

The Pacific islanders who have settled in Springdale have paid their own way or borrowed from relatives, unlike thousands of Marshallese brought to the United States as indentured laborers at nursing homes and amusement parks by "body brokers." Because they came on their own, they are free to accept a less-taxing or better-paying job, as Moody eventually did, free to quit and go home, free simply to leave.

They have their own churches and clubs, and sufficient numbers that schools and local government must address their needs - for some still live below the poverty line and few go to college.

Marshallese imported by brokers often end up stranded, isolated and hungry, and nearly 8,000 miles from home.

Unlike the brokers, who collect fees of up to $5,500 for each worker they deliver, Moody offered temporary refuge to fellow islanders who slept on his floor or couch - wherever they could find open space.

"I never charged them a penny," said Moody, 49, a stocky, easy-going man with thick wrists, graying hair and a deep voice.

"It's really sad if someone's making money off of them," he said as he reclined in an antique rocking chair, wearing a brightly colored shirt adorned with palm trees. "That's sad, it's really sad. If I had done that, I'd be a millionaire."

Of the more than two dozen Marshallese interviewed here, all said they had arrived in Springdale independently, without the help of third-party recruiters and brokers.

'A good place to live'

On a weedy patch of grass, players gathering for an all-Marshallese softball game outline the batter's box with flour. Children linger at the rusting chain-link fence behind home plate; others hover nearby to chase balls that go into the street. Their mothers chatter in minivans with dashboards adorned with seashells and cloth flowers, while young men puff on cigarettes at the far end of the field.

Among these 100 or so players and spectators are modest signs of Marshallese success. At third base is Anbili Aikuj, 26, who in the Marshall Islands could find only odd jobs. Now he works the night shift at Tyson's Cornish hen plant, hanging live birds, and is soon to become a supervisor.

Aikuj's Ebon Atoll team competes against Brothers All, organized by the Marshallese Full Gospel Church, one of eight churches locally with Marshallese congregations. The church raised money to buy its own building and recently opened a second branch in a strip mall across town.

Behind home plate stands umpire Ned Laibwij, decked out in a floppy straw hat with a bright-red hatband and a tank top bearing a giant image of the American flag.

His $47,000, two-bedroom home on Kansas Street is widely known as the first to be bought by a Marshallese in Springdale.

"I didn't know nothing about buying a house," he said. But he had a job at Tyson and a steady income. He got the mortgage and the sale went through.

Now, 20 or 30 Marshallese are homeowners, he said.

"Northwest Arkansas is a good place to live," Laibwij said.

In terms of income, it clearly is a better place to make a living than the Marshall Islands. According to a survey conducted in late 2001 by the Embassy of the Republic of the Marshall Islands in Washington, the per capita income of Marshallese in Arkansas is $6,691, four times the island figure of $1,670, though well below the U.S. average of $24,352.

Among Marshallese of working age, only 7 percent are unemployed in Springdale, the survey found. By comparison, in 1998, unemployment was 31 percent at home and 24 percent among Marshallese who emigrated to Guam, Hawaii and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Last year, eight people made up the average Marshallese household in Northwest Arkansas, 77 percent had telephones, 90 percent owned cars and almost all had air conditioning - relative luxuries for Marshallese elsewhere.

The image that emerges from these figures is that of a community of hopeful immigrants in the tradition of New York's Lower East Side in the early 1900s, in which newcomers lean on one another to climb the social ladder.

Marshallese migration

Marshallese arrive in a region transformed by booming agribusinesses that are struggling to meet their labor needs. Increasingly, experts say these businesses turn to immigrants and migrants, who take jobs Americans are reluctant to fill.

Springdale is no exception. In 1989, Hispanics, Asians and Pacific islanders combined made up about 2 percent of the school district's students. In 2000, the district was 22 percent Hispanic and 5 percent Marshallese. About 140 of the 426 Marshallese students were new to the district last school year. At Tyson's Cornish hen plant in Springdale, about 150 of the 460 production line workers are Marshallese.

They make up such a large percentage that the plant shut down a shift for a Marshallese celebration on Memorial Day weekend, and officials met with the president of the Marshall Islands, Kessai Hesa Note.

Hispanic immigrants from Mexico, South and Central America encounter onerous visa restrictions when they try to enter the United States to seek employment, and restrictions have been tightened in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

In December, the U.S. government charged six Tyson managers with conspiring to smuggle illegal immigrants across the Mexican border to work in 15 of its processing plants in nine states, including Arkansas.

Tyson disputed the allegations and said the government case involved a handful of employees, all now departed, who operated outside company policy.

Marshallese, who are allowed to enter the United States without visas and work, pose no such problem. Tyson officials say that the islanders have worked out well.

"It's a very good culture, a very family oriented culture," said Greg Bohannan, a Tyson plant manager here. "They have a positive attitude. They very rarely see any bad in anything."

Tyson is happy primarily because it has "a more docile work force" that won't complain about adverse working conditions, said Leone Bicchieri of the Poultry Workers Justice Campaign for the National Interfaith Alliance for Worker Justice. The alliance is a church-affiliated rights group that is trying to organize Arkansas poultry workers.

Poultry processors set strict production standards, Bicchieri said, forcing workers to go very fast.

"No one likes the live hang," he said. "The rooms are usually so dark that it takes you a few minutes to be able to see at all. It's kept dark to keep the chickens calmer. Gutting is also a bad job."

Tyson spokesman Ed Nicholson said it is "absurd" to suggest that his company recruits foreign workers because they are more docile and less likely to organize.

Although production speeds are faster than they once were, he noted that they are approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In addition, he said, the line has more workers and more automation.

Wages, he said, are competitive with those of other area companies.

"Creating conditions that will increase turnover and drive people out of the work force is not in our best interests," Nicholson said.

Good work pays off

The first Marshallese supervisor of the live hang room was promoted in the spring and will take over the post after completing a training course.

"They said I'm a good worker," said Anbili Aikuj proudly. Being good means hanging 28 live chickens or more in shackles each minute. In a week, Aikuj and his co-workers hang 1 million hens.

"It's dirty work," Aikuj said.

Sometimes he gets a skin rash from handling the chickens, he said, "but it's not really bad."

Back home on Small Island, part of Majuro Atoll, Aikuj said he was able to find only occasional work as a construction worker or store clerk - not enough to support a family. One day he would like to run a Tyson plant. He wants his children to go to college.

Many Marshallese find their first jobs at Tyson, then move on.

Murjel Tarkwon, 45, worked on a Tyson production line, operating a machine that pulls the innards from chickens, but said he left when the constant hand motions made his left wrist swell. Three years ago, he found a job he prefers, working as a clerk and on the line at Rockline Industries, which produces baby wipes.

Tarkwon bought a house. His children, Alister and Zhang, who want to become police officers, covered the back of his Ford Crown Victoria with bumper stickers of eagles and American flags that say "God Bless America." The children keep a poster of Michael Jordan on their wall and are fans of the Arkansas Razorbacks college basketball team.

"The U.S. is like everybody says," Tarkwon said. "It is the land of opportunity."

Seeking work

Growing numbers of people from the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia are seeking their fortunes on the American mainland. The two countries became U.S. trust territories after World War II, and despite gaining independence in 1986, remain affiliated with the United States through a Compact of Free Association.

When U.S. aid was reduced by 20 percent in 1996 under an automatic reduction required under the provisions of the compact, it sent shock waves through the island states' fragile economies, impelling residents to seek work overseas. But many did not have the money for expensive plane tickets.

As this desire to leave grew, brokers saw a chance to profit, promising free tickets to the United States, and often an education, then selling their recruits as cheap labor to American firms. Recruits found themselves in one- and two-year stints as low-wage labor for nursing homes nationwide and for amusement parks such as SeaWorld, Universal Studios and Busch Gardens in Florida.

Once workers finished their contracts, recruiters often left them stranded without the means to afford a $1,500 plane ticket home. By contrast, workers come to Springdale on their own, purchasing plane tickets with loans from relatives, friends and banks.

They arrive already having friends and family in the area, and stay with them until they have money for a car and a place to live. They share rides to work and provide one another with rice, money and a place to stay.

Springdale educates a rapidly growing number of Marshallese children, many at Parson Hills Elementary, where 15 percent of the pupils are Marshallese, nearly all living below the poverty line.

Donations from Tyson and other area corporations support the Jones Center for Families, a free community center converted from its former use as a truck terminal and located on a sprawling 40-acre campus. There, Marshallese play basketball and volleyball, surf the Internet and ice skate for free. The center's education director teaches night classes on weekends so Marshallese teens can learn American rules of the road and obtain driver's licenses.

The nearby Multicultural Center helps the town's growing population of immigrants and migrants adapt to their new community. The center recently hired a bilingual liaison to determine the needs of local Marshallese.

At his darkened duplex near Oriole Street, Kevin Jorban, 25, proclaims that he lives the good life.

He arrived in Springdale from Majuro Atoll six years ago, hoping to find more opportunities than he found at home. Now he lives on a small block of ragged two-story townhouses near Parson Hills Elementary in the neighborhood most heavily populated with Marshallese.

Since his arrival, he has learned to operate a battery jack, lifted 50-pound tubs by hand and grown accustomed to the smell of raw poultry - in jobs that he said don't exist on his island.

All around him, he sees others with lifestyles that would be considered luxurious at home. From his front door, he points out Marshallese children riding bikes on a nearby driveway and a Marshallese woman driving an old blue Cadillac.

"Moving down here [to Springdale] is hard," Jorban said. "But you get a chance. Once in a lifetime you get a chance like this."

So hard to be alone

Ned Laibwij came from Laura, the sandy, narrow tip of a densely populated coral atoll known as Majuro. A decade ago, what little he knew of America came from Westerns and other films that played at the island's only movie theater. It had four walls, but no roof or floor.

When Moody and his relatives returned to the dirt roads of Laura in 1991 and told residents about Springdale, Laibwij borrowed money and left for America within a week.

"Back in the Marshall Islands, we heard so much about the United States," Laibwij said. "Like, 'They have nice things, a big house.' We've seen it in movies and really want to come."

Moody and his relatives aided Laibwij and others in filling out employment applications, drove them to immigration offices to obtain proper documentation and helped them get driver's licenses. Often, Moody let them sleep on his floor and couch, and when they had enough money, helped them find apartments of their own.

Moody says he offered assistance because he knows how hard it is to be alone.

"It scared me living here by myself," he recalled.

In the early 1980s, he became the only native of the Marshall Islands attending Oklahoma State University-Okmulgee, a two-year college in a small town south of Tulsa. He said he dropped out after he tired of eating Baby Ruth candy bars for meals and waiting for his scholarship check.

For the next 10 years, he moved from town to town, working every job from hanging live chickens to cleaning their parts off machines. Moody said he has no regrets about his time at Tyson, but he now operates a forklift for $7.25 an hour in a factory that cans spinach and butter beans in Alma, 60 miles south of Springdale.

Taking her chance

Springdale resident Weppen Lautej, 44, had a more difficult passage to the United States.

Like many lured by paid recruiters, Lautej thought she was going to nursing school when recruited by Larry Muller of DeMichele Et Al. Inc., a Naples, Fla., operation that finds Marshallese workers for nursing homes.

Lautej had waited for this chance for more than a decade. Years ago, she dropped out of a nursing program at a community college in the islands after developing a respiratory problem. She left Majuro for the first time at the age of 42.

She arrived for work in Sioux City, Iowa, and found the city covered in snow. Aside from fellow recruits, there were no Marshallese. No one with whom to worship or hitch a ride to the grocery store. No nursing school, either.

"It was OK with me. I really wanted to [fulfill] the contract," Lautej said.

But she said the weather was too cold. Lautej developed asthma and could not do the work of lifting and washing patients. So, she made her way to Springdale to live with relatives.

When Lautej's asthma resurfaced last March, she quit her job at a local turkey processing plant. Her relatives continue to support her. Every Sunday at 1 p.m. she gets a ride to First Presbyterian Church, where about 200 members of the Marshallese United Church of Christ attend services.

Lautej teaches Sunday school, and on a spring afternoon led a crowd of Marshallese children as they sang, "My God Loves Me."

"I am very happy here," Lautej said.

Island Day

In a crowded cafeteria at J.O. Kelly Middle School are signs that others are happy as well. Years ago, students raised money each year by voting to make teachers kiss a piglet during a school assembly. Somewhere along the way, teachers pulled Marshallese culture into the mix, and the party was dubbed Island Day.

As a prelude to the pig kissing, a district administrator taught students the word uma, which means kiss in Marshallese. Speakers blared Beach Boys music. Marshallese parents stood timidly by the side of the room as their sons and daughters took the stage to dance in grass skirts and flower necklaces before their peers. The parents craned their necks and smiled.

The children's futures are uncertain. Some arrived in the United States without their parents and live with relatives in order to attend U.S. schools. Basic information on their education level and birth dates is difficult to find. Others went to their first day of school in thin T-shirts and flip-flops, ill suited for the cold in Northwest Arkansas. Marshallese are generally poorer than other students, although teachers say no one arrives hungry.

Last school year, all Marshallese high school seniors graduated on time, but school administrators said they were unaware of any Marshallese students who might have gone on to college.

"That's something we're not real proud of," said Judy Hobson, coordinator of the English as a second language program for the Springdale school district. "That's what they're here for, an education. But they don't go to college."

In the middle school cafeteria, Primrose Joash, 13, has a sunnier view of her future.

Fiddling with the flowers in her hair, she says that her father works in a Tyson factory but she's not sure what he does. She knows, though, that she came from Laura, hates pigs, misses the ocean and does not want to work in a factory.

"It's too dangerous," she said.

Instead, Primrose plans to go to college. She said she will make a living doing whatever she wishes, somewhere in the United States. Arkansas is better than Laura, she said, because life is more free.

"You know, freedom," Primrose said. "You can walk and play with friends that you never had."

A token of thanks

What John Moody did to make all this happen is only hinted at on a plaque he keeps stashed away in the small bungalow he rents a few hundred yards off a main highway about 40 minutes from here.

The plaque, received from the Ibben Dron ("Join Together") Club in 1999, reads: "As a token of our appreciation and gratitude for his pioneering efforts to bring us to our adopted homeland."

"Life over here is everybody's dream," Moody said. "It's hard to explain. Life over here is better."

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