East African refugees chase opportunity in Alaska seafood jobs

(Photo by Alex Stonehill)
(Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Alaska seafood jobs are an increasingly powerful draw for immigrants and refugees in Seattle’s East African community. For many it’s a great opportunity — the chance to work long hours, earn overtime and save money to send to relatives back home.

But the work can be dangerous. The seafood processing plants are usually in remote locations and for new immigrants facing language and cultural barriers, even the smallest problem can become a huge challenge.

Next week, KUOW Puget Sound Public Radio will launch “Ballard North,” a series of stories produced by the Seattle Globalist about the growing role of East Africans in the Alaska fishing business.

The three-part radio series took our team of journalists to Dutch Harbor — a remote fishing port on the Aleutian Island Chain, where bald eagles fill the skies and fish processors work around the clock to ship freshly caught crab, cod and pollack around the world.

We also visited Cordova — a tiny town that can’t be reached by road, but that’s the source of the coveted Copper River Red Salmon the graces Seattle restaurant menus each spring.

The series “Ballard North” uncovers for the first time what life on job is like for this new wave of seafood processing workers with roots in East Africa.

We’ll talk to Abdirahman Shire, a refugee who’s kept a smile on his face as he’s navigated cultural differences, aches and pains and plain old boredom working endless hours on the “slime line” saving money to help his siblings back in Somalia.

We’ll follow Salahaldin Adam who came to Cordova from Darfur (by way of Spokane) and is one of the many workers whose career in seafood processing was cut short by injury before it really even got started.

We’ll also help an old-timer butcher fresh crab in the back of a pickup truck, find out what it’s like to visit a remote emergency room without a translator, and meet a few Seattle immigrants who liked “Ballard North” so much they settled there permanently.

The series also includes a fourth segment, produced by KUOW’s Feliks Banel, tracing the fishing industry’s sometimes violent history and connection to Seattle.

Listen in to KUOW 94.9 FM afternoons October 19th to 22nd to hear the stories.

The “Ballard North” series was made possible by the KUOW Program Venture Fund.