'The women improved our workforce tremendously'
From June 19-30, we will be sharing stories of Christian Reformed churches and individuals across the United States and Canada who have opened their hearts and homes to those fleeing from war and persecution. The following is the latest story in this series.
Unity Christian Reformed Church, Prinsburg, Minn. - Three summers ago, Dan and Sarah Brouwer first hired refugees from Burma/Myanmar to work on their strawberry farm.
Previously, the Raymond, Minnesota couple had only hired local teens, but the Brouwers had expanded their strawberry fields and needed more help.
To their delight, the Brouwers discovered that the nine refugee women they hired were picking 80 to 90 pounds of strawberries in four hours, while the American teenagers they employed had been picking 30 to 40 pounds in the same time. By watching and copying the women’s strawberry-picking style, the teenagers increased their picking times to a similar rate.
The Brouwers, members of Unity Christian Reformed Church in Prinsburg, Minnesota, have hired the women back every year since.
“The women improved our workforce tremendously,” said Sarah Brouwer. “They pick so much, so fast, that they are racing to grab the boxes and hoping we don't stop them from picking more!”
Ray Moo, one of the women who picks for the Brouwers, had only good things to say about her summer employer. “The wages are fair, and Sarah is very warm and kind. She accepts us as who we are,” she said.
“We like everything at her farm,” said Sakwe Pah, another of the refugees. “We look forward to picking strawberries again this summer.”
Moo, Pah and the others are from the Karen people group of Burma/Myanmar. Many Karen have been living in refugee camps in Thailand for decades. About 15 percent of them are Christian, descendants of those led to faith by Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson in the early 1800s. More Karen live in Minnesota than in any other state in the U.S.
The women who work for the Brouwers attend a nearby Baptist church, which holds bilingual services in English and Karen. The Brouwers enjoy the fact that they all worship the same God.
“At Christmas, they came to our house to carol in their native language,” said Sarah Brouwer. “They love to sing praises to God! They also prayed for our four-year-old son when he was hospitalized for breathing difficulties last winter.”
“[The Karen women] are eager to come and pick strawberries,” said Nancy Snyder, who first brought them to the Brouwers’ farm. Her refugee friends are ambitious, she added, and they work hard to educate themselves and their children, finding careers such as accounting that pay well without requiring total fluency in English.
Sarah Brouwer is enjoying the cross-cultural experience. “They encouraged me to try new and interesting foods from the Happy Family Grocery Store in Willmar,” she said. “Sticky rice and Pad Thai sauce were a hit; jalapeno-flavored seaweed chips were not!"