Chobani doubles down on hiring Mideast refugees

Hamdi Ulukaya, founder and CEO of Chobani, came to America originally on a student visa from Turkey and built a yogurt empire that now employs hundreds of refugees from the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere.

President Obama’s call Thursday for corporate America to hire more foreign refugees drew a commitment from one company that has already given a large share of its U.S. jobs to migrants from the Middle East, Africa and other parts of the world.

Chobani, owned by a Turkish Muslim immigrant, has filled 30 percent of its 600 positions at the world’s largest Yogurt plant in Twin Falls, Idaho, with refugees resettled in America through a U.S. State Department program carried out in cooperation with the United Nations.

Now, in answering Obama’s plea for more corporate help, the company has pledged to boost the number of refugees on its payroll even higher, according to a report Thursday by Bloomberg News.

This comes at a time when Twin Falls is embroiled in a firestorm of controversy involving an alleged sexual assault of a 5-year-old special-needs girl by refugee boys from Sudan and Iraq. The city’s mayor, Shawn Barigar, called for calm in the community and lectured his residents at a Monday city council meeting that they should not a spread a “false narrative” about the case that he accused Internet bloggers and others of creating.

WND has learned that Barigar was instrumental in recruiting Chobani to Twin Falls back in 2011, and he now plays a dual role of elected official and president/CEO of the local Chamber of Commerce.

Twin Falls Mayor Shawn Barigar

Twin Falls Mayor Shawn Barigar

Barigar, a Democrat, has been in leadership roles with the Chamber for 11 years. During that time he has also served two stints on the city council, with a gap between January 2008 and January 2012 in which he was not part of the city government.

It was during that gap, but while he was running for office in 2011, that he was busy working to lure Chobani to Twin Falls.

“I was a member of the recruitment team that recruited Chobani to Twin Falls in 2011,” Barigar told WND in a phone interview Thursday.

Barigar was elected to the City Council in November of 2011 and took office in January 2012. He’d already served a previous term on the council from 2004 through 2007.

Barigar, whom the council selected as mayor in January, said he does not see his dual roles of mayor and Chamber CEO as potentially a conflict of interests.

“I do not see it as a conflict of interest nor have the voters who elected me three times to the city council,” he said. “The mayor is selected every two years by the council, so I was not the mayor during the Chobani recruitment nor was I on the council.

“We did the ground breaking in December 2011,” he added, which would have been after he was elected in November but just before he officially took office in January.

Chobani, maker of America’s No. 1 selling yogurt brand, was honored with Food Engineering‘s ‘Plant of the Year’ award for its state-of-the-art facility in Twin Falls, Idaho. Opened on December 17, 2012, the Twin Falls facility was built in just 326 days following a $450 million investment.

Chobani was honored with Food Engineering‘s ‘Plant of the Year’ award for its facility in Twin Falls, Idaho. Opened on Dec. 17, 2012, the 1 million-square-foot plant was built in just 326 days following a $450 million investment.

Ann Corcoran, author of the Refugee Resettlement Watch blog, said the conflict of interest is disturbing and should be questioned by Twin Falls residents.

“Twin Falls is really a microcosm of what we find going on in so many of the refugee communities across the U.S., where you have people moving in and out of government and the Chamber of Commerce with a vested interest in making sure a meatpacking plant or some other industry has continuous access to refugee labor,” said Corcoran. “Only in this case we have a blatant example of conflicts of interest by an elected official who is also the head of the Chamber enticing companies to come in and make use of the steady influx of cheap, overseas labor.

“These are jobs that Americans would be happy to fill but they are forced to compete now with someone from Sudan or Iraq who is used to working for a dollar a week.”

The local Muslim community in Twin Falls grew out of its mosque and built a new, much larger house of worship last year.

Local resident Vicky Davis commented in a blog post that Mayor Barigar attended a “Refugees Welcoming” meeting in February but it was unclear which “hat” he was wearing.

“Barigar is both the president of the Chamber of Commerce in Twin Falls as well as the mayor,” Davis wrote. “It’s not clear in what capacity he attended the Refugee Welcoming group’s meeting. The city should buy him two hats – one for each of his two faces so we can identify who he is representing at any given moment.”

Meanwhile the criminal case against the three migrant boys in Twin Falls has been sealed by a judge.

Local resident Eric Odell spoke at the city council’s June 20 meeting and said he had many Muslim refugees working under him when he was a shift leader at the Chobani plant in Twin Falls, and that while most of them were great people, “a few were evil or frightening,” the Times-News reported.

Thursday’s report by Bloomberg said Goldman Sachs, United Parcel Service, HP Inc., MasterCard Inc., IBM and Google have also pledged to provide either jobs, cash aid or free services to refugees, about 85,000 of which will be distributed into more than 190 cities and towns across the U.S. this year by the State Department.

The White House is leaning on companies to commit money and other assistance to resettlement programs ahead of a global refugee summit Obama will host Sept. 20 at the United Nations.

The State Department works through nine federal resettlement contractors that includes the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Luther Immigration and Refugee Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Church World Services. World Relief (an arm of the National Association of Evangelicals), the International Rescue Committee, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and the Ethiopian Community Development Council. These volunteer agencies or VOLAGs have between 50 percent and 95 percent of their budgets funded by U.S. taxpayer dollars and are paid by the head for every refugee they resettle in the U.S.

A quick search of the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center database shows more than 2,340 refugees from more than a dozen countries have been resettled in Twin Falls since January 2002.

Since that time, 161 refugees have come from Sudan, 377 from Iraq, 280 from Iran, 241 from Russia, 70 from Afghanistan, 642 from Bhutan, 68 from Bosnia, 54 from Burundi, 146 from Democratic Republic of Congo, 238 from Eritrea, 32 from Azerbaijan, and 21 from Ethiopia.

Twin Falls town is one of more than a dozen areas around the country that is experiencing major pushback against the resettlement of refugees, especially from hotbeds of jihadist activity such as Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. So-called “pockets of resistance” have organized in Amarillo, Texas; St. Cloud, Minnesota; Fargo, North Dakota; in parts of Michigan, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

The controversy surrounding an alleged sexual assault in Twin Falls has been raging for more than two weeks. The assault took place June 2 in the laundry room of the Fawnbrook Apartments but was kept secret by police and given no media coverage until citizen activists complained about a police “cover up” at a Twin Falls City Council meeting on June 20.

The three suspects from Sudan and Iraq have been evicted, but the Iraqi family was at last word still living next door to the family of the 5-year-old victim.

Read previous WND coverage of the Twin Falls migrant assault on a young girl:

Boise Mayor David Bieter

Boise Mayor David Bieter

Like Barigar in Twin Falls, the mayor of Boise, Idaho, David Bieter, has also been a big supporter of refugees, including Syrian refugees. Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Boise has received 59 Syrian refugees, according to the federal refugee database.

Beiter has also gone on record as a supporter of President Obama’s welcoming initiative for immigrants and refugees, writing in a blog post last year that, for his city, “Diversity isn’t a buzzword. It’s our birthright.” That post has since been scrubbed from the city’s website.

The U.S. State Department has shipped more than 12,000 refugees directly from the Third World to Idaho since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, most of them landing in either Boise or Twin Falls. Nearly half have come from some of the world’s nastiest jihadist hot zones, including Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Pakistan, according to the federal refugee database.

Last October, hundreds of residents rallied against the College of Southern Idaho’s Refugee Center’s continued resettlement plans. But despite growing protests by local residents against the refugee arrivals, the Twin Falls area can count on being a prime spot for refugees for years to come, thanks to Chobani.

Chobani founder and chairman Hamdi Ulukaya, a Kurdish Muslim and immigrant from Turkey, made a pitch for more refugees to be hired by corporate America at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, as previously reported by WND.

At Davos, he called on other CEOs to join his campaign to throw corporate cash, lobbying initiatives, services and jobs to refugees.

Six companies immediately took him up on the idea: Ikea, MasterCard, Airbnb, LinkedIn, Western Union and UPS all agreed at that point to hire more refugees or provide free services to them.

Now Obama is doubling down on those efforts, calling on businesses to do their part in helping resettle the expanded number of refugees flowing into the U.S.

Obama has called for an increase in the total number of refugees resettled in the U.S. to 100,000 in fiscal 2017, which begins Oct. 1. This up from 85,000 in 2016 and 70,000 in 2015. The GOP-controlled Congress has fully funded his expansion of the program.

Included in that package is 10,000 Syrian refugees. That plan elicited letters to the Obama administration from more than two dozen mostly Republican governors, including Gov. Butch Otter of Idaho, saying they did not want Syrian refugees coming to their states.

Obama ignored the governors’ concerns about vetting and national security and in fact issued a decree to speed up the resettlements from Syria and reduce the time spent on vetting from 18 to 23 months down to as little as three months.

Looking out for his own?

In an op-ed for CNN earlier this year, Ulukaya wrote:

“Some business leaders have stepped up. Airbnb is offering travel credits to relief workers on the ground. LinkedIn will run an innovative pilot project in Sweden that uses data to match refugees with job openings by comparing the skills they have with the skills employers are looking for. Other companies (such as Google) are providing refugees with free computers, access to online education, and packages filled with essentials like soap and sunscreen.”

Ulukaya’s efforts appear spurred by his own cultural background as a Kurdish Muslim and by a personal visit to the refugee camps in Turkey and Greece.

Ulukaya has told several media outlets that he was horrified by the human suffering he witnessed.

But he said the fact that he shares a cultural affinity with many of the refugees – he grew up near the Syrian border in Turkey, before moving to the U.S. as a student – made an even bigger impact.

Ulukaya personally made a $2 million donation last year to the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees.

What about Americans who need jobs?

Refugees account for about 30 percent of the total workforce at Ulukaya’s yogurt plants. That means about 600 of Chobani’s 2,000 employees in the U.S. are foreign refugees.

“There are 11 or 12 languages spoken in our factories,” Ulukaya told Financial Times. “We have translators 24 hours a day.”

Corcoran said the strategy being pushed by corporate America is done in the name of compassion but actually leaves jobless Americans and veterans in its wake.

“Take UPS, for example. Almost every county has a UPS depot, and it’s a really nice job for people who are low skilled, loading the trucks,” said Corcoran. “It’s kind of a job that people are willing to do. You don’t have to ship people here from the Third World to fill those jobs.”

 

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