Plastics plant welcomes Burmese immigrants (video)
By GHENI PLATENBURG - SPECIAL TO VICTORIA ADVOCATE
Aug. 23, 2012 at 3:23 a.m.
Updated Aug. 26, 2012 at 3:26 a.m.
High above the roaring machines and hustling employees on the work floor of Inteplast's stretch film plant, the flags of 14 nations hang from two rows of black ceiling beams.
Propelled by gusts of air from nearby vents, the United Nations-like display of native insignia, from a roster of countries including Germany, Israel and Mexico, all wave gallantly.
The calling cards of their countrymen, the flags, most of which have been at the factory since the early '90s, represent the diverse group of employees whose hard work laced with sacrifice helped to not only found Inteplast, but also to keep it profitable the past 21 years.
Karen refugees are among the company's newest employees. Their flag joined the ranks of the others about two years ago.
"It just became a custom," said Brenda Wilson, human resources manager at Inteplast Group.
ON THE JOB
The relationship between Inteplast and the Karen community started with a phone conversation between a Port Lavaca dentist and a friend from Houston.
In early 2007, Dr. Gillian Kwi, an established dentist of Karen descent, learned from her friend that Port Lavaca had a growing number of unemployed Karen refugees.
Willing to help, she contacted friends at Inteplast to inquire about job opportunities.
Established in 1991, Inteplast Group is the largest manufacturer of integrated plastics in North America and among the largest employers in the Crossroads.
The company offers a diverse product line including stretch film, trash can liners and grocery, merchandise and garment bags.
News of the job-seekers soon made its way to Benjamin Wang, Inteplast plant manager with 20 years experience and a Taiwan native.
The Karens' need for employment came at an opportune time for Inteplast, whose production lines had slowed down and in some cases stopped altogether because of a shortage of workers.
"It was a provision from God," said Kwi. Inteplast "had a need and they needed jobs."
The first eight Karen employees - two women and six men - started shortly afterward at the company's 700-acre Lolita plant site.
They were hired into packer positions, rendering them responsible for packing film rolls and boxes.
TRAINING WITHOUT TALKING
Bringing on the new non-English-speaking employees presented a challenge, although not an insurmountable one, for Inteplast.
Parts of the employee manual had to be simplified, and language and training took a significant amount of time.
As an extra safety measure, Karen language signs were placed in important potentially hazardous areas.
A special sign language of sorts even developed between the Karen employees and their co-workers to communicate important production information.
"There was just smiling and handshakes between two people to encourage them on doing a good job," Wang said about his limited personal usage of the specialized sign language system. "It doesn't matter about their background."
For the most part, existing team members responded well to their new co-workers, Wang said.
"Where there are people, there is challenge," he said. "But we have to overcome that one way or another."
KAREN POPULATION GROWS
The company further accommodated the Karen employees by providing a shuttle to transport them back and forth to work.
For almost three months, Kwi, who allowed the first eight Karens in the area to live with her, had served as their drop-off and pick-up person.
The Karens slowly adjusted to work and life in the Crossroads, moving into Port Lavaca's Bordeaux Apartments.
Those first eight then began bringing their family members down, as well as friends and friends of friends, most taking jobs at Inteplast too.
The Karen population in the area grew rapidly during the next five years, the vast majority of whom still live at the Bordeaux Apartments.
While some of the Karen later moved away to take jobs elsewhere in the state, many stayed put at Inteplast.
These days, about 120 Karen employees make up the 1,300 employees at the company's Lolita site.
Employees who came to the plant by themselves have now evolved into father-son teams, husband-wife teams and sibling teams all working together at the plastic company.
CLIMBING THE LADDER
Christle Bell has made many new friends since starting as a packer at Inteplast four months ago.
This is his second job in America. His first was an assembly line worker at a plant in Houston.
"I like it here," said Bell, 21. "It's easy for me."
Other Karen refugees have moved up the job ladder from packers to operators, making them accountable for entire production lines and the quality of its output.
The language barrier continues to be a manageable issue for the company, as more tenured Karen employees and younger ones who are inching toward English fluency all help to translate for those who speak only Karen.
Inteplast also sought to assist its employees with learning English by setting up a language lab at the Bordeaux Apartments; however, many residents say that long hours on the job and taking care of their families prevent them from using the lab as much as they would like.
Further down the road, Wang foresees the Karen continuing to move up the job ranks, even into management.
"They have a big desire to learn and they commit to the job," said Wang. "Myself and other people around us recognize their work ethic and contributions."
A COMMUNITY WITHIN A COMMUNITY
At first glance, the brown, tree-lined apartment complex situated on six acres in the 1700 block of North Virginia Street, appears to be like any other.
But to the many Karen residents who live there, the complex is much more than that.
It is a place where children play traditional Karen games on the concrete parking lot and in the park and women meet up to chat while folding clothes in the centrally located on-site laundry room.
It is also a community where people leave their shoes neatly outside the door before entering into an apartment and a place filled with people who share a common language and culture, as well as life experiences to which many in the Western world cannot relate.
The number of Karen tenants at the complex has steadily declined during the past five years, dropping from the Karens renting all 136 units on the property in 2007 to renting only about 40 units today.
However, the complex still remains a hub for the community, even for those who live elsewhere around Port Lavaca.
He Tha and his family are among those who still call the Bordeaux home.
FLEEING TO FIND A HOME
As he sat in a corner chair in his small apartment, barefoot and wearing a traditional red and purple sarong, Tha, with the help of translator Steimetz Dune, told of how he and his family came to live in Port Lavaca.
Tha, 56, was born in Myanmar, formerly called Burma.
After years of running from Burmese onslaughts, he fled to a refugee camp in Thailand as a young adult.
He was called to be a pastor at the age of 21, eventually ministering to a congregation of about 100 members in his refugee camp.
Along the way, he also got married and had four children.
Tha and his family came to America in search of a better life.
They spent two years living in Georgia before making their way to Port Lavaca three years ago.
Since their arrival in Port Lavaca, Tha and his wife, Mya Mya, took jobs as packers at Inteplast.
Tha also serves as one of the ministers at the nearby Karen Fellowship Church, a cornerstone in the local Karen community.
The pastor and his new congregation hold worship service at the Alamo Baptist Heights Church, about a five-minute walk from the Bordeaux Apartments.
Whether it is ministering, playing in the church band or simply attending service, the entire community is involved with the church.
The sermons and songs are delivered in Karen, as most of the members, including Tha, do not speak English.
"Preaching the word of God doesn't change," Tha said about his ministry." Everywhere it is the same."
Tha said he would eventually like to focus on his ministry full time, but his current finances will not allow that, especially with his two oldest children - Baby Boy and Monday Tha - both in college.
CHANGING THE CROSSROADS
Financially, the Karens have had an impact on the Crossroads community and beyond.
They fulfill most of their everyday grocery needs at the H-E-B grocery store, which has not had to make any accommodations for its new Karen customers and is within walking distance to the Bordeaux.
However, they often travel to specialty stores in Houston to purchase their culture-specific foods such as fish paste.
When they are in the mood to eat out, Victoria Thai restaurants offer the Karens a menu of familiar delicacies.
James Munsch, co-owner of Noot's Thai Kitchen, said quite a few Karen customers have dined there during the past year.
Bob Flores, co-owner of Victoria Tru Thai, also has seen an increase in Karen customers, mainly through catering a few of their special events.
"We try to do as much as we can for them," said Flores. "You have to really know what they like."
Flores said menu items that are popular among his Karen customers include Thai tea; Pad Thai; stir fry; vegetable dishes; and fried rice.
The Karen community also enjoy watching the Karen soccer team and mixed martial arts together on television, said Tha.
Despite the national debate about immigration, Tha said he has little interest in keeping abreast of politics and plans to permanently make his home in Port Lavaca.
"All we know is we belong to this country, and we have to obey the rules and regulations," he said.
Whatever happens from this point out, politics or otherwise, Tha is not concerned about it, having put his trust in God.
He said Psalm 118:17 best sums up his past, present and future: "I will not die, but live. And tell of the works of the Lord."
Immigrants find Port Lavaca a haven from hell on Earth, click HERE