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McDonald County, Missouri, is a small community in the very southwestern most part of the state that few have been to or, in some cases, even heard of. But the communities of McDonald County - Anderson, Noel, Pineville, Southwest City - are home to an incredibly diverse mix of people. These community now includes white Missourians, as well as immigrants from Mexico and Central America and refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Burma and Micronesia. And still more people are coming to the community every month seeking opportunity and a better life.

Relations Improve, But Tension Remains for Immigrants in Southwest Missouri Town

Rebecca Smith
Somali community members gather together for conversation and tea in a backroom of the African Grocery Store in Noel, Missouri

Driving down Main Street, Noel seems like any other small town in Southwest Missouri. There are a few diners, the bank, a grocery store. But there's also a Mosque.

Siyad Ahmed arrived in Noel in November of 2008. He said there were only seven other Muslim refugees from Somalia in the small town at the time, but they came together and selected him as their leader – or Imam.

Aden Ahmed, Siyad’s younger brother, and numerous other refugees have come to Noel since that day in 2008. According to the University of Missouri extension, there are now approximately 300 Somali refugees in the town, as well as the large Hispanic population and those from Burma, Micronesia and Sudan. 

Credit Rebecca Smith / KBIA
An African Grocery Store and Mosque have been set up on Main Street in Noel, Missouri.

A mosque has been set up on Main Street and serves the more than 300 Somali refugees. Aden said that his brother does much more than the traditional roles of an Imam – such as leading daily prayers and delivering sermons. He also acts as a community liaison for the Somali community to the Noel city government.

“He kind of like work(s) with the city and tr(ies) to resolve any major problem concerning about the Muslim community and that way they just work hand to hand,” Aden said.

While Siyad does try to work with the city and resolve issues, the two groups have been at odds in the past.  

Farah Barale works as a translator for Tyson Food, Inc., which is the company that has attracted the immigrant populations to Noel. Barale said the plant does not require English skills and it makes an ideal first job for recent immigrants.

Credit Rebecca Smith / KBIA
Farah Barale

When the Somali immigrants first began to arrive in Noel, Barale said there were community members that didn’t like the black, Muslim refugees moving into their town.

“Our complaint was that the police in Noel, they give the tickets to the Somalis, it doesn't matter whether he did something wrong or not,” Burale said. “Whenever they see that it’s Somali driving the car, just the ticket is on the table.”

Barale said he estimates that a few years ago, on any given court date, 70% of the people were likely to be Somali.

John Lafley has been the mayor of Noel for over two years and said the distinct communities in Noel have had issues in the past and continue to struggle.

“There's a lot of animosity in the town because the people that have come in don't live by the same rules as…we've learned,” Lafley said.

The Somali community did receive tickets, Lafley said, but the city's biggest concern was that the immigrant populations don’t follow the city ordinances of keeping their yards maintained. He said they were given warnings, but received tickets if the yards weren’t cleaned.  

Lafley said things came to a head when the new immigrants wanted more housing built in Noel, but many residents believed there was already enough.

“Well, if you talk to your constituents and they say 'We don't need it' then you can hardly go against the people that's voted for you,” Lafley said. “And that's what it came down to before. Is people said 'We don't need any more cheap housing.’”

But in 2012, the Department of Justice Community Relations service met with leaders from the community – white, Hispanic and Somali to identify the issues and concerns that existed within the community.

According to the CRS 2013 annual report, the CRS mediated a meeting between city officials and the Somali community. Then the FBI and United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Missouri organized a civil rights training in July 2013 that approximately 100 people from the community attended. The report says communication has improved between all parties.

"As a result of CRS efforts, communication between the parties improved."

But Lafley said the city wasn’t really invited to the meetings. He said the groups never came together in the same room to discuss the problems the city was experiencing. Yet he believes that relations have improved.

“We are trying to work together,” Lafley said. “We are trying to understand the demographics of the Somali, the Islanders.”

And Barale agrees that things have improved. He said that while not everyone in the community is happy they are here, no one says anything to their face and the Somali community is able to live and practice their religion with no interference, and there is now even a mosque inside the Tyson plant.

“We became very strong and whenever we have issue, we come together and we gather and we talk to each other help to solve,” Barale said.

But Siyad said problems still exist in Noel for the Somali immigrants, such as education and housing. He said with new refugees coming into Noel every day, it’s very difficult to find them housing, and he said he has brought this problem to the city, yet it remains unresolved.

"It's just going to take time. They're going to have to learn how things work here and we're going to have to learn that we're going to have to give them time to learn what goes on in Noel."

Lafley said the issue has been brought to his attention, but many Noel residents still believe there is enough available housing to meet the community’s needs.

Residents also believe it would just cause more trouble for the city Marshall's Office to build more housing Lafley said. 

Both Lafley and Somali community members agreed that things have improved since the 2013 meeting, but Imam Ahmed stressed that he and the Somali community are ready to work more with the communities around them - be it other faith groups or the city.

It's just going to take time,” Lafley said. “They're going to have to learn how things work here and we're going to have to learn that we're going to have to give them time to learn what goes on in Noel.” 

Rebecca Smith is an award-winning reporter and producer for the KBIA Health & Wealth Desk. Born and raised outside of Rolla, Missouri, she has a passion for diving into often overlooked issues that affect the rural populations of her state – especially stories that broaden people’s perception of “rural” life.
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