Nearing the end of a packed two days of touring local industries, Leadership Kansas’ 2018 class sat down at Garden City High School to hear the stories of three Garden City immigrants.
The class, made up of 40 upcoming leaders from across the state, will spend the next six months visiting and listening to the residents of six Kansas communities and learning about issues pressing and relevant to each area.
Garden City is the class’ first stop. The class’ three days in the area included sessions at Gray County Wind Farm, Royal Farms Dairy, Reeve Cattle Company, Sunflower Electric and Tyson Fresh Foods, as well as panels and discussions about the region’s history, economy, industry and diversity.
It was the latter panel, moderated by Garden City City Manager Matt Allen and featuring Community Corrections supervision officer Dora Herrera, Cottages Assisted Living Center nurse Virgenie Kyaw and Tyson Fresh Meats trainer Mursal Naleye, that brought the class face to face with the experiences of young, local immigrants.
A diversity session is not new to the Leadership class’ stop in Garden City, said Jennifer Cunningham, Garden City’s assistant city manager, Leadership Kansas alumnus and organizer of the stop in Garden City.
This year, with a panel of young professionals, Cunningham said she found the sweet spot. Naleye, Herrera and Kyaw had the confidence and maturity of older speakers with the optimism and drive of younger ones. For a mostly white Leadership class, she said listening to immigrants’ accounts were essential.
“I think it’s a huge message for them because I think a lot of people are going back to communities that are predominantly white, just like they are. (The panel) is not representative of who they are, but it’s representative of who Kansas is … It’s in pockets of these communities that aren’t accepting (diversity), and because they’re not accepting this, their communities aren’t thriving like they could,” Cunningham said.
Allen gave the group a crash course in Garden City history detailing the economic and population booms, falters and booms again. Behind him, a series of black and white photos of buildings, cattle and local shopping centers emphasized his points.
After running through what he called the CliffsNotes version of Garden City’s history, Allen spoke about the city’s population and the different cultures that embolden it. The slideshow began to show Garden City’s people, and the photos turned to color.
“While you are here with us these three days, I trust you will be exposed to our soul. We aren’t just water, corn, cattle and workers … The soul of this community is in our people, our differences, our similarities and our unity,” he said.
Allen said that Garden City’s diversity often had been a focal point of national discussion and example, how the community came together after a hate group plotted to bomb an apartment complex filled with Somali immigrants in 2016, how both Allen and his children had grown up around children from different countries and how he believed they were better for it.
From there, Allen passed the torch to Naleye, Herrera and Kyaw, who each spoke about how they came to Garden City.
Naleye, who is Somali, passed through Egypt, Minnesota and Dodge City before coming to Garden City, where his proficiency in English helped him get a job at Tyson.
A predominant leader in the local Somali community, Naleye said he worked to organize other Somali and East African residents into the East African Community Center, believing that a cultural community is bolstered when it is bound together and actively connected to the people and area around it.
Herrera shared how her family struggled financially in Mexico and ultimately decided to cross the border to America when Herrera was 12. Growing up undocumented and becoming a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, recipient, Herrera graduated from Garden City Community College and Wichita State University with a degree in criminal justice.
When former President Obama granted work permits to dreamers, Herrera said she and her family cried “tears of joy.”
“At that time, I stopped and thought about how much a piece of paper changes your life. I mean, we were going to have a Social Security number. We were going to be able to get a driver’s license. That meant a lot to me. I knew I was going to be able to exercise my degree now,” Herrera.
Herrera has been a probation officer in Garden City for four years now, and holds two other jobs as a translator for Emberhope and a data entry clerk for Spirit of the Plains CASA. She said she wanted to move back to Garden City to be close to her family and to give back to a community that has given her so much.
Kyaw felt similarly. Born in Myanmar, she spent a portion of her childhood in a refugee camp after her parents went against her home country's government to teach refugees in Thailand. Kyaw and her family, who are part of an ethnic group discriminated against by the government in her home land, became refugees themselves and ultimately sought a better life by moving to America.
Kyaw’s family lived in Galena, then Pittsburg, where they found a more comfortable life, including beds, but an imperfect community. Kyaw said her parents, trained as educators, worked laborious jobs and she was bullied and excluded for not speaking English and being the only Asian girl in her class. She missed the refugee camp, where she had friends and felt like part of something.
When her dad got a job as a translator in Garden City Public Schools, Kyaw said, she finally found an American community that welcomed her. The school and city were more diverse, and there were people who looked like her. People embraced her and made her feel like she fit in. She would graduate from the high school in the top 10 percent of her class and go on to graduate from GCCC’s nursing program.
“I met my best friends and high school sweetheart in this town. I went from shy girl to this somewhat confident person. I went from a girl to a woman, and I became a nurse in this town. And most importantly, I became the person that I am today because of this town,” Kyaw said. “Yes, my past has made me stronger, but if it wasn’t for this city accepting me for who I am, I wouldn't have become the person that is standing right here in front of all of you. This city and the people who live in it make me feel visible.”
After Naleye, Herrera and Kyaw finished their segment, Allen asked if the class had any questions. Two people stood up, asking the three young people what made Garden City feel like home and what they could do better when working with immigrants in their communities.
Mursal said the people of Garden City’s dedication to equality, inclusion and kindness, including specific events meant to bring the city’s groups together, made it feel like home to him. Kyaw said that openly welcoming immigrants would make their lives easier. Regarding the latter question, Herrera urged class members to be advocates for immigrants and dreamers by calling their representatives and supporting legislation that would help immigrants remain in America and contribute to their communities.
As the session came to a close, class members met Naleye, Herrera and Kyaw on stage, shaking hands and talking to them about their experiences. Kyaw she received a lot of hugs and that a woman from Pittsburg apologized for Kyaw’s experience there. Kyaw said she was glad the woman had heard her.
“I want in the future (for people) to know that we have different stories and different journeys to get to where we are today. Just be more sympathetic and welcome everyone with open arms and open hearts,” Kyaw said.
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.