By Alan Gottlieb
Fort Morgan, Colo., an Eastern Plains town 90 miles northeast of Denver, has been home to immigrants and migrant workers since it was first settled in the mid-1800s.
German and Russian men were brought in to work the sugar beet fields in the 1860s. People of Mexican descent worked the land even before the town was incorporated, and have been part of the community’s backbone for more than 150 years.
But a large-scale influx of East Africans that began in the middle of the last decade has posed challenges for the town, and particularly its school system—far more complex than previous waves of new arrivals.
The newcomers, primarily refugees from Somalia, brought new customs, a new language and a new religion—Islam—to Fort Morgan and the 3,300-student Fort Morgan RE-3 school district.
And while one might expect a community in the heart of Trump country in the post-9/11 era to regard this particular type of new arrival with suspicion, the reaction by and large has been open and welcoming, according to immigration advocates, educators, an outside researcher and newcomers themselves.
That’s not to say that everything is rosy. Schools still struggle with serving 750 students who speak a dozen different languages. And while the community at large has been open to the new arrivals, there’s still a lack of interpersonal connection between long-time residents and the recent arrivals.
“There are some people who ‘cross the boundary’ and do things like go to the gym with us, or go to lunch,” Farah Karshe, 19, a Somali who is a junior at Fort Morgan High School said in unaccented English. “Others disrespect the fact that I am black, Muslim and Somali. I don’t really get that.”
Karshe, his parents and five siblings moved to Fort Morgan a decade ago, a year after emigrating from Somalia to Denver. His parents both got jobs at the Cargill meatpacking plant, which prompted the move.
Karshe was happy to leave Denver. As a seven-year-old new arrival, he said he lashed out at people who tried to befriend him, and was filled with anger at having been uprooted from Somalia.
In Fort Morgan, Karshe settled into a more tranquil routine. Then, after eight years, his family moved to Kenya for a couple of years to be closer to relatives. They decided to return to Fort Morgan last year.
Though mostly happy to be back in what feels like his hometown, Karshe said he’s noticed a more overtly hostile vibe in the school halls and cafeteria since Donald Trump became president.
“The atmosphere has totally changed—there’s a lot more open racism,” he said. “School officials step in when they see something, but they don’t see everything.”
The challenges of the current political environment would probably extract a stiffer toll on immigrant students like Karshe were it not for concerted efforts by Morgan County School District RE-3 to welcome newcomers and gently introduce them to the new culture in which they find themselves abruptly immersed. Efforts include a newcomer’s center inside the schools that acts as a safe harbor for the most recent arrivals, and paid Somali interpreters to help new students make themselves understood and understand what is being said around them. Advocates for immigrants credit the hard work of school district leadership with the successful integration of East African immigrants and refugees.
“The town, in a short amount of time, has become one of the most diverse communities in the state, and those types of changes put pressure on communities that sometimes can take a wrong turn,” said Eric Ishiwata, an ethnic studies professor at Colorado State University (CSU) in Fort Collins. Ishiwata has worked closely with the Fort Morgan schools and nonprofits over the past five years—and enlisted the help of his CSU students—to help integrate immigrant populations into the fabric of the community.
“For the most part, Fort Morgan has been an example of how rural communities can respond to those changes in responsible and compassionate ways, and a lot of the heavy lifting and community leadership has taken place through the public schools,” Ishiwata said. “We owe a lot of thanks to the people who are first point-of-contact for newcomers and their students—these educators are trying to guide the town to a new sense of normal where everyone has an opportunity for safety and healthy outcomes.”
Fort Morgan’s growing diversity enriches the lives of long-time residents as well.
“I see kids from all walks of life coming together,” said Rena Frasco, the Fort Morgan school district’s director curriculum and instruction. “My own kids have been blessed to have that kind of diverse population in their classes and extracurriculars. They really see beyond the color of someone’s skin, or their language, and learn that everyone brings different gifts.”
The city population as a whole consists mostly of people of moderate means, Frasco said. Learning what some of the immigrants and refugees have gone through to get to Fort Morgan “helps local kids recognize how much we have to be grateful for.”
Haley Lewis, an 18-year-old senior, has attended Fort Morgan schools since kindergarten. She said the increasing diversity of her school over time has provided an enriching educational experience.
“It’s interesting to look back at old yearbooks and see how we went from being mostly white students to almost being in the minority,” Lewis said. “I feel I have learned so much from these newcomers, and it has helped the community break down stereotypes we might have had.”
Some African students, Lewis said, arrive speaking multiple languages and with a wide range of life experiences. “It gives us such a different perspective,” she said. “Even though we may feel a certain way about something, there are so many different ways of looking at everything.”
Lewis also works with newcomers through her church, Life Fellowship, which offers a safe place for newcomers to gather and learn about the basics of American culture.
Her experiences with different cultures in her hometown has given Lewis the travel bug. She plans to attend the University of Nebraska in Kearney this fall, and hopes to become a radiologist. But she hopes she can squeeze in some world travel as well.
“The stories we hear from other cultures are so awesome, it would be great to experience some of it first-hand,” Lewis said. “And as many cultures as we have here, there are many others that aren’t here, and I’d like to experience those as well.”
The newest wave of immigration into Fort Morgan began in early 2007, shortly after a massive raid by federal immigration officials on a meatpacking plant in Greeley, 55 miles to the west. More than 273 workers, many of them undocumented, were arrested during the Dec. 12, 2006 raid.
The raid and its devastating consequences—more than 200 Greeley kids came home from school that day to find one or both parents gone—struck fear in the heart of Greeley’s immigrant communities. Many people hid for weeks. Others decided that the climate was too hostile to risk remaining in the town.
Some members of that latter group headed east along U.S Route 34 to Fort Morgan, where the Cargill meatpacking plant had been spared from the widespread national immigration raids that ensnared Greeley.
Some of those who headed to Fort Morgan were Latino; many were African. Although many Africans had legal status as refugees, and therefore couldn’t be deported, Fort Morgan seemed a potentially more hospitable place to resettle.
Greg Wagers was superintendent of the Fort Morgan schools when the influx of East Africans began. Many in Fort Morgan credit his calm, pragmatic approach to the challenge with the relative success of the absorption progress. Wagers prefers to spread the credit far and wide.
“We involved as many aspects of the community as we could,” Wagers said. “Educational institutions, governmental institutions, nonprofits, churches, businesses, the police department, human services. Somebody has to engage all of those different organizations and coordinate their efforts.”
In Fort Morgan, Wagers said, that coordination role was shared among the school district, the police department and a 13-year-old nonprofit advocacy group called OneMorgan County.
OneMorgan County’s mission is fostering relationships “among diverse people and organizations to strengthen the inclusive nature of our community.” Staff also helps new arrivals navigate byzantine institutions like the U.S. health care system, said Executive Director Susana Guardado.
Finding a Somali interpreter to meet a worried family at the emergency room, or to help a newcomer apply for and access Medicaid, are among the services OneMorgan County has provided. (The organization is a recent grantee of The Colorado Trust.)
A group of community members calling themselves Fort Morgan Cultures United for Progress—including long-time residents as well as Latino and East and West African immigrants—has also met regularly to promote goals of cultural integration and equity. The group is supported by The Colorado Trust’s Community Partnerships strategy.
Guardado is herself an immigrant. She came to Fort Morgan from Zacatecas, Mexico as a five-year-old, when her father moved the family to Fort Morgan to take a job in the Cargill plant.
“I did a lot of interpreting for my parents from when I was little,” Guardado said. “The atmosphere was different then. I would say there was a lot of tolerance [of immigrants] then, but now we are moving to the point of acceptance.”
But the biggest intersection between U.S. systems and newcomers has been in the schools. When the influx of African immigrants began, school district officials noted that even some of the older kids—and their parents—had no formal education background, which meant they couldn’t read, write or do basic arithmetic.
The ties between education, health and life expectancy have been documented by a wealth of research studies, so closing an educational divide between newcomers and natives would ameliorate inequities that go far beyond academic degrees. It would help ensure a healthier, more robust Fort Morgan immigrant population, which in turn helps facilitate a smoother integration into the community at-large.
The district’s initial reaction was to open a “secondary (middle and high school) newcomers center” to accommodate new arrivals, begin providing them with the foundations of a formal education and help orient them to their new home. Over time, though, the district concluded that the newcomers center was keeping those students isolated, which ultimately wasn’t serving them well. Students today spend less time in that transition phase than in its early days, and are incorporated into mainstream classes as quickly as seems practical in each individual case.
“It was a good initial solution, but it wasn’t best for the kids,” Frasco said. “What is best is bringing them in with the general student population, providing scaffolded supports and as much exposure to (English) as possible.”
The district has one full-time Somali interpreter working in the high school and one in the middle school. They provide great benefit to Somali students as well as the school staff, said Taylor Jordan, who teaches English as a second language.
Burale Mohamed, the high school interpreter, also acts as a family liaison to Somali parents.
“When we have parent teacher conferences, he reaches out to the parents to make sure they attend, because we figure the students weren’t going to do that,” Jordan said. As a result, attendance at the conferences has been high among Somali immigrant families.
An even more important role Mohamed plays is mediating conflicts that develop as some students begin to assimilate. Recently, Jordan said, there was an incident where a Somali girl was being bullied by a peer because she had reached out and begun to befriend some non-Somali students. The student doing the bullying said the girl would lose her connection to Somali culture if she didn’t socialize exclusively with other Somali students.
“Obviously that’s what we want, for these kids to make friends with all kinds of other kids,” Jordan said. With the help of Mohamed, who has lived in Fort Morgan for three years, “we had to break that down with [the bullying student] and tell her that making friends with kids from other cultures doesn’t mean you lose your own. It was a good conversation that needs to happen more often.”
The biggest challenge with interpreters is retaining them, given the low wage the school district can offer—about $10 per hour on average.
“The Cargill plant pays twice as much to start, and many of these people are sending money home to relatives, so of course they are going to be tempted by the higher wage, even if they’d rather work in a school,” Jordan said.
Fort Morgan schools have crafted individual language development plans for each student whose native language isn’t English. How those plans are implemented depends on grade level, said Nancy Hopper, the school district’s director of English language development. To make sure the native English-speaking population is served well in classrooms with several students learning a new language, “classroom instruction moves at the pace for English-speaking students,” Hopper said.
The changes have meant a new kind of professional development for teachers, focused on “helping them understand who these kids are,” Frasco said. Because so many of the African students fled violence and then spent extended periods in refugee camps under difficult conditions, many have suffered trauma that can impede their ability to focus on schoolwork. Some professional development has focused on working with children who have suffered severe trauma.
This is nothing new in Fort Morgan schools, where, “as a district of poverty,” plenty of native-born kids have experienced trauma in their lives, Hopper said. It’s just that the magnitude of the trauma may be more profound for some of the newcomers.
“We have counselors at every building as well as three school psychologists to address trauma concerns,” Hopper said. “Are we where we want to be with this endeavor? No, but we are working diligently on it to address the needs of all our students.”
Having kids tell their stories in a public way also helps them process their experiences, and helps the broader community appreciate the astounding breadth of life events these young people have had. The school district’s website includes a section called “FM Speaks,” where students from all walks of life can tell their stories publicly.
One story on the site paints a stark picture of the difference in how schools in Fort Morgan treat students from other nations compared to rural schools elsewhere. It’s written by an unnamed Somali girl:
“When I came to the United States, the first school I went to was a school in Tennessee for 7th grade. I was young and the first day I went to school, I was shy and I didn’t know how to speak English and I didn’t have any friends to talk to. The problem was I only knew my language, Somali, but we weren’t allowed to speak different languages, we had to speak English. If the students hear you when you speak a different language, they would tell the teacher and we would get in trouble, and we had to use five minutes of play time and you don’t get to play that day if you speak your language. Fort Morgan High School is different because we are allowed to speak our languages, but we also are still learning English. It is important that I continue to speak and learn my language because that is how I talk to my mom and family.”
That kind of sensitivity cuts both ways, former superintendent Wagers said. He recalled that when East Africans began arriving in significant numbers, Somali elders were concerned about pork being served in school lunches.
“The elders wanted us to regulate what the [Muslim] kids took at school lunches,” Wagers said. “We said we couldn’t do that—but what we could do was clearly identify pork products.” The solution: a popsicle stick with a picture of a pig placed in front of any food product that contained pork.
“Then it was up to them to choose whether to take that or not,” Wagers said. “We wanted to communicate clearly without playing the role of regulator for the families.” Wagers said that satisfied the elders and district officials alike.
A bigger issue was how to handle prayer in school. Long a contentious issue in U.S. education, school prayer became more complex in Fort Morgan when devout East African Muslim families wanted accommodations that would allow their children to pray several times each day.
“The community response was frankly a little concerning, because some people thought perhaps we were giving preferential treatment to the Muslim students,” Wagers said.
After checking district policies and consulting attorneys, the school district created a space for students of any faith to go in their free time to pray.
“It was a low-key thing, not a big deal; it was up to the students, just like choosing food. We didn’t regulate it at all,” Wagers said. “It seemed to work pretty well. The line that we drew was that it could not interfere with classroom instruction.” Most people seemed satisfied with that solution, Wagers said.
As immigrant students successfully make their way through the public education system, the next step is connecting them to higher education. Curt Freed, the new president of Morgan Community College, has ambitious plans to do just that.
A key component of Freed’s plan is hiring Somali- and Spanish-speaking student ambassadors to persuade more immigrant students to take advantage of concurrent enrollment opportunities. Concurrent enrollment allows high school students to earn college credit that is funded by public education dollars rather than out-of-pocket tuition payments.
“We have seen unfortunate circumstances where even superstar [immigrant students] for whatever reason have not been encouraged to take advantage of concurrent enrollment,” Freed said. “We want to make Morgan Community College a cultural center for the community, and increasing the engagement of the diverse communities in our area.”
Farah Karshe has every intention of taking advantage of that and every other opportunity that might present itself.
He wants to become a police officer because, he said, there aren’t enough cops, especially in rural areas, who understand and are sensitive to cultural differences. Karshe plans to take criminal justice classes at a community college for two years, then transfer to CSU.
“I want to be a person of the law who does it fairly,” he said. “I just need the education to make that happen.”