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Iowa's Burmese Community Devastated By COVID-19


Meatpacking plants continue to drive coronavirus outbreaks across rural America. In Iowa, refugees from Myanmar are among the hardest hit as nearly the entire community works elbow to elbow at the plants. Iowa Public Radio's Kate Payne reports that many feel trapped working in facilities where social distancing is extremely difficult.

KATE PAYNE, BYLINE: Iowa is home to some 10,000 refugees from Myanmar. Many are Christians who fled ethnic violence from the world's longest-running civil war. The vast majority work in a handful of the state's meatpacking plants where they can make better than minimum wages without having to understand English. But because of that, the entire community is disproportionately at risk to the coronavirus. One advocacy group says all its clients from Myanmar have either had the virus or been exposed to it.

BENJAMIN SANG BAWI: Of course, in the beginning, we're really scared and panicked. And when they receive a positive, so they think that they are going to die.

PAYNE: That's Pastor Benjamin Sang Bawi of Carson Chin Baptist Church in Columbus Junction in southeast Iowa. In the past decade, the ethnic Chin community there has grown to be nearly 20% of the population in this meatpacking town of 2,300. At least 221 workers at one meatpacking plant there have tested positive, and two have died. Pastor Sang Bawi says while employees know the risks of the production line, there's virtually no other work in town.

SANG BAWI: If they don't go to work, how they will survive - that is a big question. So - and, of course, every family concerned about that.

PAYNE: Sang Bawi has become something of a one-person social service agency during the pandemic. He's counseled people over the phone as they self-isolated, interpreted for them at their doctor's appointments and delivered food to their doorsteps. COVID has left refugees even more vulnerable than normal as they face barriers to transportation, social services and even basic information.

Abigail Sui of the Iowa refugee rights group EMBARC says adjusting to life in the U.S. is a huge challenge for families who have spent years in refugee camps.

ABIGAIL SUI: Many families do not have computer and access to Internet or know how to use computer or technology. So we need a system to accommodate immigrant and refugee communities.

PAYNE: According to the group, refugees in Iowa from Myanmar speak 27 languages and dialects. Lack of English proficiency is a major challenge, as is a lack of interpreters. In May, Sui urged local officials in the city of Waterloo to do more to directly support the large refugee community there.

SUI: Families that are self-isolated in their homes need for food delivery, not a phone number to the food pantry. They need food delivered to their door, and we are doing that.

PAYNE: One person doing that work is Victoria Wah, a refugee from the Karen ethnic group. She also staffs a multilingual phone line for refugees, answering questions on how to file for unemployment, how to call in sick and when to dial 911 for help. Even as coronavirus cases increase in parts of the country, many meatpacking plants are pushing production levels back up to full capacity and reverting to stricter attendance policies. Victoria Wah says she doesn't know of any other jobs for those in her community.

VICTORIA WAH: Like, the meatpacking plant is, like, only the option for, like, people from my community. And I don’t know about, like, other factories that we can, like, work.

PAYNE: Her brother recently reunited with her in Waterloo. But like thousands before him, he'll have few options other than processing pigs in a nearby meatpacking plant. For NPR News, I'm Kate Payne in Iowa City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kate Payne is an Iowa City-based reporter for Iowa Public Radio. Before she came to the Hawkeye State she was a reporter and fill-in host for WFSU, the NPR member station in Tallahassee, Florida. Kate has won awards for her political and feature reporting and her sound editing.

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