At a community center off Main Street in Fort Morgan, Colorado, 25-year-old Sitina sits near the window, fidgeting with her set of keys. Once this interview is over, she’ll race home to make dinner for her family: a husband and two young kids. She worries about whether she’ll make it to bed on time. Her Saturday shift at the Cargill meatpacking plant starts at 5 a.m.
“Going back to Cargill actually pushes me more,” said Sitina, who asked that we not use her full name. “I’m like ‘no,’ this is not where I want to be.”
Sitina wears a headscarf made of muslin and has spent the last seven years working on and off at the massive meatpacking plant. She trims the fat from slabs of beef and says it’s hard work; after the eight-hour shift her hands and feet ache. This was never part of her plan.
“Since I was little I’m always like I want to go to school, I want to be something,” she said.
Originally from Ethiopia, Sitina arrived in Colorado as a refugee, along with her sister and brother-in-law. Like millions of young girls in low-income countries, she struggled to get an education—her family couldn’t always afford the tuition—but by age 16 she was living in America and things would be different.
“I was like, ‘yeah I’m going to go to school (to become) a nurse,” she remembers thinking. “I always wanted to be a nurse.”
But those plans quickly shifted when the situation back in Ethiopia became dire: her parents’ home was falling apart and they struggled to put food on the table. Who else could they turn to but their daughter who was living in one of the wealthiest nations in the world?
Refugees in Colorado often find themselves stuck in low-paying, low-skilled work, according to new research from Xioaling Chen at the University of Colorado Boulder. Chen says the need to become financially self-sufficient, or in Sitina’s case, support her family, pushes many refugees to take the first available job. Once they’ve started working, it becomes increasingly difficult to focus on education or job training programs.
“It is this vicious cycle that traps them in low-skill, low-paying jobs,” said Chen.
The day she turned 18, Sitina got a job at the meatpacking plant (she’d applied before but was turned away for being too young). Two semesters shy of graduating high school, she started working five days a week on second shift. She’d go to her job at 2 p.m., leave around midnight, and return to school the next day.
Entire paychecks were wired to her parents back home but she was exhausted. At times she couldn’t keep her eyes open in class and eventually dropped out of school.
Sitina’s story isn’t unique. Eric Ishiwata, an ethnic studies professor at Colorado State University, has spent the last six years working closely with the Fort Morgan community—one of the most diverse places in Colorado. In that time he’s met many women who are close to meeting the education goals that would help them earn higher wages.
“But life is complicated and every once in awhile there’s some challenges or barriers that just kind of block people from getting over that last little bit,” he said.
Earning a GED or college degree can provide a leg up, but Ishiwata says the cost, language barriers and unfamiliar university system often become roadblocks. The United Nations, estimates that globally, fewer than 1% of refugees make it to university.
In 2018, Ishiwata and a local nonprofit, One Morgan County, partnered with the Women’s Foundation of Colorado. Through a statewide initiative called WAGES (Women Achieving Greater Economic Security) they secured funding to send six Fort Morgan women, including Sitina, through school at Morgan Community College.
It’s one of 15 programs across the state helping close to 500 women from diverse backgrounds gain access to work that pays a living wage. While the pay gap for white women in Colorado has narrowed, Louise Myrland with the Women’s Foundation of Colorado says studies show it’s actually increased for women of color says.
“The emphasis (in WAGES) is on helping women accelerate progress to long term economic security,” she said.
In Fort Morgan, all six participants are mothers, mainly from immigrant and refugee backgrounds. Through WAGES and the MCC Foundation, they receive a stipend to help pay for necessities, like childcare and additional guidance from Susana Guardado at One Morgan County and counselors at Morgan Community College.
These women work as a cohort, moving through the program together and offering each other advice along the way. When Gloria Perez, who at 39 is studying business, didn’t understand the work in her economics class, her WAGES sister caught her up. Perez says the cohort helped her through her first semester.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” said Perez, speaking in Spanish.
The typical story of refugees and immigrants in America in one of sacrifices, so their children can have a better future. But how much potential is lost when women like Perez are left behind? While many of these women spent years cleaning hotels or cutting meat at the packing plant, Ishiwata says they finished their first academic year with near perfect grades.
“Nothing is going to make me happier to see these women have jobs that really make the most of all their talents,” he said.
Like Sitina, who speaks six languages. Apart from her job at Cargill, she also works in translations, runs a small business and still finds time to study for her GED. While this isn’t the first time she’s tried to finish high school, she can now afford to prioritize her class work thanks to WAGES. Most importantly, she says she can be an example for her two young children.
“Them is the only reason right now is pushing me to school, I wanted to show them,” she said. “I want to give them what I never had.”
Whereas before, Sitina left school to help her family, now she’s sticking with it to give them, and herself, a better life.