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How Does A Town With 37 Languages Prepare For Emergencies?

Eh Pree (middle) and her brother, Gala Soe, at their family home in Guymon, Oklahoma.
Jacob McCleland
Eh Pree (middle) and her brother, Gala Soe, at their family home in Guymon, Oklahoma.

Gala Soe and his family sit on their living room floor, watching his infant daughter play with bright plastic balls on a colorful mat. Portraits of family members line the walls of their trailer.

“Because my dad, every year he tries to take a picture for a memory,” he said.

Gala Soe and his family are originally from Myanmar, members of the Karen (pronounced kuh-RIN) ethnic group. They fled persecution in their home country and spent a decade in a refugee camp in Thailand. Gala Soe said there was little work in the camp, food was scarce and the water was dirty.

“That’s why me and my family are really happy that we could come to the United States for a better life,” he said.

Gala Soe’s family originally resettled in Connecticut, and moved to Guymon after a few years to work in the Seaboard pork processing plant. Now, nearly every adult member of his family has a job there.

The family had never experienced weather extremes like those in Oklahoma’s panhandle. Winters bring single digit temperatures and the risk of blizzards, while summers are hot and dry. Wildfires are risk when it’s dry. Springtime is tornado season.

“We live in a mobile home. It’s not really safe,” Gala Soe said.

“If we have a tornado, we would probably have to go to our church because our church would be a lot safer than the house that we live in.”

Gala Soe’s parents do not prepare for potentially severe weather or other emergencies.

“They don’t really prepare because they don’t know,” said Eh Pree, Gala Soe’s sister, laughing.

“We only wait for the pastor to tell us, ‘Oh, tornado is coming. Go there, do this.’”

Gala Sae (far right) and his family at their home in Guymon, Oklahoma.
Credit Jacob McCleland / KGOU
Gala Sae (far right) and his family at their home in Guymon, Oklahoma.

That pastor is Mark Wescoatt, a Lutheran minister. Many Karen families in Guymon go to his church.

“If you've got an announcement on the radio or the television they wouldn't have a clue what it was,” Wescoatt said.

Clergy members fill a big role in welcoming new immigrants and refugees to Guymon. The town has fewer than 12,000 people, but 37 languages are spoken in its public school district.

Wescoatt helps Karen and other newcomers with immigration paperwork and drives them to medical appointments. He also sends messages on social media to young Karen if a bad storm is brewing or a wildfire is approaching.

“[The young people] are becoming much more social media savvy and they're able to share this with their parents,” Wescoatt said.

Tower of Babel

About 75 percent of students in Guymon Public School speak Spanish, according to Julie Edenborough, the district’s director of migrant services.

The next most common languages are Amharic and Tigrinya, from Ethiopia and Eritrea, followed by various languages spoken in Myanmar and at least seven indigenous Guatemalan languages. Students at the school represent at least seven different African countries and six countries from Asia.

“Just normal communication is complicated and I do have concerns when there are emergencies that we don't have the communication that we need,” Edenborough said.

A strong blizzard hit Guymon a few years ago, not long after the first refugees from Myanmar arrived, and some children from the country did not know schools had cancelled classes.

“They waited at the bus stop in 30 mile per hour wind with the wind chill...close to 20 below for the bus to show up,” Edenborough said.

She said the school sent messages to the English and Spanish radio stations, but that didn’t help the students  from Asian or African countries. English language teachers now call each home whenever school is cancelled.

“That's kind of above and beyond the teacher's responsibility but that's all we could do,” Edenborough said.

The linguistic challenge is one of many obstacles Guymon officials face in preparing the community for severe weather.

Refugees and immigrants can also be scared of authority figures and warning siren tests.

“We find post-traumatic stress syndrome reveals itself a lot of the times in the refugee kids,” Edenborough said.

“[Some] crawl under the desk and won't come out for the rest of the afternoon. We've had situations where the kids were just very upset by loud noises or that siren sound.”

Edenborough and her teachers teach  new students about the warning sirens. They also tell parents about sirens and tornado shelter locations during home visits and parent-teacher meetings.

Don Stull, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Kansas, has written on the meat packing industry and its effect on communities. He said it can be difficult for law enforcement officials and government agencies to build trust with refugee communities because they are fleeing persecution in their home countries.

“Very often that persecution is coming from the established authorities -- the army, the police. And so the policemen are not necessarily their friends in Ethiopia or Myanmar or Mexico or Guatemala or El Salvador,” Stull said. “And so assuming we get to the United States and this guy in the uniform, ‘Well, he's my friend.’ That's not something that they automatically assume.”

Meat packing plants and refugees

Guymon is not the only community on the Great Plains with a large number of refugees and immigrants. Places  like Garden City and Liberal, Kansas and Lexington, Nebraska have also experienced an influx of foreign-born residents after meatpacking plants set up shop.

Stull said packing plant managers view immigrants and refugees as hard workers who are less likely to unionize.

“They need the work,” Stull said. “Where else can you get a job that pays as much as meatpacking if you don't speak English, if you don't have preexisting job skills, or high school or better education?”

The meat industry has changed dramatically since the 1960s. Meatpacking companies, originally centered in large urban areas like Chicago and Kansas City, gradually moved to smaller communities away from cities.

Stull said the companies turned to immigrant labor, at first primarily from Mexico and Central America, because these small towns often didn’t have an adequate workforce.

Stull said modern companies increasingly seek refugee labor.

“Refugees are in this country with authorization. Immigrants may or may not be,” Stull said.

The art of translation

Translating pamphlets and other documents into different languages could help the Guymon community  prepare for a disaster.

Harold Tyson, the emergency manager for Guymon and Texas County, said the number of languages in the city has multiplied since he translated emergency preparedness pamphlets into Spanish a few years ago.

“I thought I was really gaining a lot. And now I got so many others that I just haven't been able to afford it,” Tyson said.

Translation is a tricky process.

“You can't just cookie cutter a message and say, 'Oh, I'll take this message in English and translate it to Somali,’” said Dennis Andrulis, a researcher at the Texas Health Institute and professor at the University of Texas Schools of Public Health.

Words can carry different meanings in different contexts and cultures.

Andrulis once gave a group presentation on HIV/AIDS prevention to a Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn. The materials were translated into Hebrew but local rabbis found them offensive.

“The person from the government...said, ‘Well we translated it.’ And the person from the Hasidic community said, ‘But we won't read it,’” Andrulis said.

Andrulis said government officials need to develop trust with these communities and engage them to figure out what is culturally acceptable.

“The churches and schools and community-based organizations there are the ones who know and they're the ones who will also help gain that trust,” Andrulis said.

“If you try to do it from a remove, from government officials, you're likely to run into quite a bit of resistance on the part of the communities.”

Mark Wescoatt, the Lutheran pastor in Guymon, is an example of an effective intermediary. For the Karen refugees in Guymon, he’s a familiar, friendly face.

“They know that that I joke a lot, but it's that they trust me. I guess that's it. They do trust me,” Wescoatt said.

And it’s that trust that can help families stay out of harm’s way.

Support for this article was provided by the Weather Eye Award, an award given to distinguished local reporters by RiseLocal, a project of New America’s National Network. 

Copyright 2018 KGOU

Jacob spearheads KRCU’s local news effort. His reporting has been heard on NPR’ Morning Edition and All Things Considered, PRI’s The World, and Harvest Public Media. In addition to reporting, Jacob directs KRCU’s team of student reporters and producers.
Jacob McCleland
Jacob McCleland spent nine years as a reporter and host at public radio station KRCU in Cape Girardeau, Mo. His stories have appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Here & Now, Harvest Public Media and PRI’s The World. Jacob has reported on floods, disappearing languages, crop duster pilots, anvil shooters, Manuel Noriega, mule jumps and more.