Small-Town America as Ellis Island
WATERLOO, IOWA — The shelves of Croatian chocolates, European salamis, spices, and pungent cheeses in the Europa Market are still sparsely stocked.
But when owner Edin Miskic looks around in his new store on quiet, clean East Fourth Street here in Waterloo, Iowa, the young Bosnian refugee is confident he made the right choice in leaving Chicago.
"We were in a very poor area. There was lots of crime," says Mr. Miskic.
He's one of more than 2,000 Bosnian refugees who've begun rebuilding their lives in this working-class town in central Iowa.
The Bosnians are part of the most recent wave of immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Europe who in the past 10 years have flocked to small- and medium-size Midwest towns - often for jobs in the meat-packing industry. Their arrival is transforming America's heartland and its perceptions about immigration.
"It's bringing home to a lot of these communities the kinds of problems and benefits immigration can bring - things these states never had to deal with before," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit immigration research institute in Washington.
Prior to 1990, Texas and coastal urban areas like New York and California absorbed the vast majority of the 700,000 to 900,000 legal immigrants that came to this country each year. Now large concentrations of the newcomers can be found in Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, and Georgia.
Meat-packing plants are behind much of the move to the small towns. Throughout the South and Midwest companies such as Iowa Beef Processors (IBP) have been actively recruiting immigrants. Most of the jobs they offer are at the lower end of the wage scale and extremely dangerous, but plentiful.
They've brought in workers from Asian countries, like Vietnam and Laos. They've wooed Hispanics who'd already settled in urban barrios in Texas and California, with the promise of a better life in the Midwest. And when the Bosnians became refugees, with their excellent work ethic and high levels of education, companies like IBP were quick to help them relocate.
Miskic had worked as an interpreter for humanitarian organizations during the war in Bosnia. He had been in Chicago only three months when he accepted an offer to work as a translator at IBP in Waterloo.
When the family moved to Iowa in December 1996, his father, a trucker for 15 years in Bosnia, went to work on the production line.
But within a year, the father finished a certification course and returned to professional trucking.
Miskic kept his job as a translator, but also went back to college full time to study business. Three months ago, with his savings and help from friends, he opened the Europa Market as well.
He credits the war for giving him his determination.
"When your best friend dies in your hands ... when you're hungry for three or four days, you don't have bread, water to drink," says Miskic, pausing and stopping mid-thought. "I don't know how to say it, I survived, now I'm just happy with everything that I have, nothing can stop me."
The Bosnians' strong work ethic and grateful optimism have won them fans throughout Waterloo. But the sudden influx of 400 children who didn't speak English also put a tremendous strain on the school system in this city of 55,000. Waterloo was accustomed to such challenges. It was settled originally by Danish immigrant farmers. Then the small town, which straddles the wide, forceful Cedar River, developed into a small city centered around meat packing and other agriculture-related businesses.
The heart of downtown still looks very much like an ideal American city from the 1950s and '60s. While a few modern buildings line the streets, the city is dominated by two- and three-story brick buildings with ornate cornices and storefronts full of locally owned shops.
Suddenly, more minorities
In the mid-20th century, the booming agricultural industry helped attract a small African-American population. Then, in the early 1990s, IBP began recruiting Hispanic workers. That presented another challenge to the town and the school system. They suddenly had to cope with dozens of Spanish-speaking students. So the schools set up an English as a second language (ESL) program.
In 1996, it was serving at most 40 Spanish language students a year. Then the first wave of Bosnians arrived. "This is a district that was already in a financial crisis when this happened," says Gail Moon, principal of the Elk Run Elementary and Bunger ESL Orientation Center. "We were $10 million in debt."
But that didn't stop the community from doing "the right thing," says Ms. Moon, despite getting no extra help from the federal government. They hired 18 new teachers and 18 interpreters who understood Serbo-Croatian. "It was a challenge to find the few Bosnian people in the area who knew enough English to be helpful to us."
The program is now in full swing. The school system is also working with nearby Northern Iowa University to help the 20 or so Bosnian immigrants who were teachers in their native country to learn English and get their certification here.
Moon says occasionally some of the more academically inclined students wonder whether the newcomers are taking resources from them - whether it's the teacher's attention or the spot on the soccer team - but overall the impact on the community and the school system has been "tremendous."
"What other better way to learn about cultural diversity. Here they have the opportunity to know two other cultures first-hand: the Hispanic and the Bosnian," says Moon. "That kind of understanding doesn't come from reading a book."
At the Waterloo Public Library, there is a shelf of Spanish language books, and librarian Lynne Miller is trying to find a good supplier of Serbo-Croatian language material - but it's been difficult so far.
And like many people in Waterloo, Ms. Miller is also excited by the new foods, restaurants, and ideas the Bosnians have brought. But something else bothers her.
The community seems to have embraced the Bosnians wholeheartedly, while many of the Hispanic residents who've been there longer are still regarded with suspicion.
"I don't know whether that's just an Anglo thing or a European bias that they have," says Miller.
In some small towns where immigrants have been relocated from urban barrios, they've also brought along gang ties. As a result, there's been an increase in crime - and ill will.
But that has not happened in Waterloo. In fact, a Hispanic market sits across the street from Miskic's store.
And at the new Bosnian Restaurant a few doors away, people from all three communities appear to enjoy the food. Only about 20 percent of the patrons are Bosnian.
"Here is a country where it doesn't matter who is who, people are friendly, and we want to be friendly, too," says Mirsad Mahmulovic, whose family opened the restaurant just 10 months after arriving from a refugee camp in Croatia.
Indeed, many Bosnians have already begun to buy homes and fix up some of the city's older neighborhoods. And as more of the empty storefronts fill up downtown, the tax base expands, and the future looks bright.
"We see our diversity as a strength and we celebrate it," says Gary Plummer, who is president of the Waterloo Chamber of Commerce.