Clarksville, Arkansas

Adjusting to life in the United States

By the Rev. Duane Binkley

In rural Arkansas, one expects to hear southern accents, see pickup trucks and meet people who live among the mountains and forests. Less expected, however, might be the fact that local industries depend on workers hailing from around the globe and that the school system cares for students and families that speak 12 languages.

Clarksville is a town of 9,200 people with 600 former refugee Karen from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) arriving in recent years to work at a local poultry processing plant. While the majority of the workers are American born, the Karen join people from Mexico, other Central American countries, the Philippines, Laos, the Marshall Islands and more.

While America is called a “land of immigrants,” the reality is that the arrival of each new group brings challenges and opportunities. So it is in Clarksville.

On the plus side, America has opened the door to let them in. Many older Karen long to be accepted in their own homeland. However, seen as enemies of the country of their birth, the government of Myanmar sent the nation’s army to drive them out. Rejected by their own country, they went to Thailand and were told they could stay temporarily but not long-term. Since the Karen come to the United States as official refugees, America is the first country in their lives that allows them to become citizens. They greatly appreciate the facts that they are legally accepted, able to remain in one place or relocate, and enroll their children in school.

The best thing any of us can do is to get to know any newcomer on a personal level and truly accept them as friends, colleagues and fellow travelers in life.

Being allowed to work — and for the first time in their lives to provide for their families — is also hugely appreciated. The Thai government neither allowed refugees to earn income in the camps nor leave the camps to work. As a result, refugees were completely dependent on aid. After years of rejection, their lives are now valued because a company not only welcomes their work but also pays them for their time and effort.

The poultry processing plant also works hard to treat everyone the same and to provide an atmosphere of acceptance. Even with people from all over the world — including those from numerous Christian denominations as well as Buddhists, Muslims and those with no faith — people mostly accept and encourage each other.

Salaries allow the Karen that have lived in the United States for only a few years to buy cars and homes. Known as the “Natural State,” Arkansas encourages the Karen to fish, hunt and gather natural foods. Local churches allow Karen congregations to worship in their facilities, and both a new Asian grocery and restaurant have opened in town to cater to the tastes of new residents. The reaction of local people has largely been positive. It is heartwarming to see children of Karen families begin to complete high school and move on to college.

On the negative side, translators and interpreters have become overwhelmed, as the Karen population increases. Hospitals, schools and other organizations are legally obligated to provide translation and interpretation to ensure that patients, students and their families understand all necessary communications. Almost all translation and interpretation services have been provided by volunteers or by staff and funding from the poultry plant. The institutions that should provide these services have not yet filled the gap.

The toughest adjustment may be among those who arrive in the United States as older teens or young adults. Many of these young immigrants dream of obtaining an education and accomplishing great things. While they are young enough to want to fit in to American culture, they are also old enough to find adapting difficult. Even if they have finished high school in the refugee camp, it isn’t recognized in the United States. Therefore, those in their 20s would need to return to high school before proceeding to college. Family financial needs might also prevent them from pursuing an education.

With language differences, adapting to U.S. life can be an insurmountable challenge. Frustration exists among some in this age group. Associated social problems include drinking, drug use and out-of-wedlock pregnancies.

As with any newly arrived group in the United States — whether the resettlement happens in the city, small town or in the country — adjustments must be made. The best thing any of us can do is to get to know any newcomer on a personal level and truly accept them as friends, colleagues and fellow travelers in life.

A former American Baptist missionary to Thailand, the Rev. Duane Binkley ministered among the Karen people and others for about 30 years. From 2006 to 2016, he and his wife, Marcia, helped churches welcome the Karen and prepare them for their new life in the United States. For the past year, he has been serving as a chaplain in an Arkansas poultry processing plant that has hired approximately 200 Karen as full-time employees.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.