FARGO-Edin Bektas found a friendly "dream" workplace when he was hired at Cardinal IG in 2001-even if he couldn't speak English and had only been in America for 10 months.
"I feel right away like I belong here," he said.
The Bosnia native remembers his journey, working his way up to overseeing 10 employees at the Fargo residential glass manufacturer, as he helps a new co-worker from Colombia.
With 31 countries and several languages represented among the 263 employees, Bektas' story is a familiar one at the facility, 4611 15th Ave. NW, and at many local workplaces today as immigrants play a major role in a local labor force short of enough workers.
"It seems to be filling a gap that wouldn't otherwise be filled," Plant Manager Mike Arntson said.
There was no deliberate effort to target recruitment at new Americans, he said, and the company simply hires the best applicants. But 65 percent of its employees are immigrants, and that's remained steady since opening in 1998.
Jessica Thomasson, CEO of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, doesn't track the percentage of new Americans in the local workforce. The Forum was unable to find any local statistic like that.
But the agency tasked with refugee resettlement does have some numbers that shed light on the issue.
In fiscal year 2016, LSS resettled 346 employable adults from 231 households in the state, with about 75 percent coming to Fargo-Moorhead. Of those statewide figures, 75 percent of households were employed in an average of three months, Thomasson said.
Considering that the community is growing 3,500 to 4,000 people a year while LSS resettles 350 to 375 people here, these refugees make up 10 to 15 percent of the local population increase each year, she said.
'They need to work'
The Pallet Co. Inc., 2301 7th Ave. N., has a staff of 45 that's about 85 percent new Americans, owner Michael Hansen said. He started the company in 2000 but he's been in the business since 1990, and he's relied on immigrant workers for decades.
"They're like the old Americans when they came over from Europe," he said. "They just have to work; they need to work."
His business will move into a bigger facility later this year, something Hansen said "should speak highly" of what his employees have done.
"I wouldn't be where I'm at without them, not even close," he said.
Lakhwinder Singh, owner of the Grand Inns at 3402 14th Ave. S. in Fargo and 810 Belsly Boulevard in Moorhead, said the hotels' five or six housekeepers are all refugees. For most, minimal knowledge of English means they can't help guests, but they're willing to clean.
"The people who are coming, they have kids so they're looking for a job, whatever job," Singh said.
More than 250 new Americans speaking 14 languages work in Sanford Health's Fargo support teams, said MIke Erickson, executive director of facilities and support services. That's about a quarter of the overall support staff, and they do everything from food service work to surgical equipment sterilization.
"They see the opportunity to grow and to have a career path," he said.
Immigrants aren't just working in supporting roles; 177 of Sanford's Fargo providers are foreign-born.
Thomasson said most refugees LSS works with get their first jobs here in hospitality, retail, manufacturing or health care as they try to regain "normalcy" after fleeing their native countries.
"People are really committed to helping make sure their children have more opportunities than they did, that they have stability and safety, and they see working as one of the steps that you need to do to do that," she said.
Language of respect
Zijadeta Pekmic and her family moved here in 1998 following six years in Germany after they left Bosnia. Like many Cardinal IG employees, she heard about the company from a neighbor.
"They were really nice to me," she said. "If I don't understand something, they try to train me."
Hakar Ali, too, came to the plant after hearing about it from a friend. He's been there for seven years, and he was named the 2016 employee of the year because of impressive production numbers and hard work, according to friend and team leader Jamal Sarki, an 11-year employee.
Both are from Kurdistan, with Sarki moving to the Fargo area 19 years ago and Ali coming here in 2010.
It's a diverse workforce that feels like family, Sarki said. A T-shirt made for an employee picnic is full of flags from the staff's 31 represented countries, he said, and on his team alone, he oversees people from the U.S., Kurdistan, Iraq, Romania, Ghana, South Sudan, Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti and Pakistan.
Araz Khalid has been with the company for four years, now serving as a team leader. He was born in Iraq and has lived in the U.S. since the early 1990s.
Language barriers might seem like a potential problem at Cardinal IG, but he said it hasn't been an issue. The hands-on work there also lends itself to training new employees through hand gestures or limited English.
"You don't really need a language to be respectful," Khalid said. "Once you're respectful to them, they'll be easier to communicate with."
His brother, Warheel Khalid, has worked there for more than two years. He's already been promoted to shift supervisor, a job Arntson said usually takes more than seven years to earn, and Khalid said he wants to help the business succeed.
"Team leader, supervisor, plant manager, it really doesn't matter as long as I'm doing my part," he said.
Fargo native Jessica Smith was surprised by the diversity at Cardinal IG when she started a couple years ago. But the hardest part was learning to speak slower. As one of the Fargo plant's SafeStart instructors, she needs to give time for translators in the room to tell some trainees what she's saying.
Smith felt bad when she first started because everyone knew her name, but she struggled with theirs. She decided to memorize the phonetic spelling of three names each week to overcome the unexpected problem.
Arntson said language and cultural differences can be a challenge, but anyone running a business deals with challenges.
More than anything else, he's struck by the "unique stories" shared by his employees from other countries, not to mention the modern-day parallel connection he sees to what the region's homesteaders must have gone through when they first came here.
"Maybe that hasn't always been true of Fargo, N.D., or North Dakota as a whole, but certainly the United States has always been a melting pot, and so it shouldn't surprise us that Fargo's a melting pot or that Cardinal IG is a melting pot," he said. "If places in Fargo don't have a diverse workforce, I'd wonder why."