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Furniture Manufacturer Employs Multi-Cultural Workforce

The Balkan conflict, the strife in Sudan, and ongoing oppression in Burma are just some of the factors that have forced people to flee their homes and resettle in the northeastern state of New York. But language and cultural barriers make finding work a difficult prospect for some. As VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports, one local furniture plant embraces the refugee community, and now employs a workforce dubbed a "mini-United Nations."

When Mehudin Krdzic was a young boy in Bosnia, he says Serbian forces moved his family from their farm into the town center of Srebrenica. He recalls what he saw with horror. "Thousands of people killed. Bodies all over the road on top of each other. Massacre. Bottom line, I saw the massacre."

What Marka Bosso knew about hardship before it came to his village in southern Sudan, he says he learned from watching movies. As conflict erupted around them, Bosso and his family fled to Egypt. "The real life is different from the movies."

Lai Nguyn is the son of an American service member and his war-time liaison with a Vietnamese woman. Nguyn has never met his father, and endured years of ridicule and isolation in Vietnam. "We feel like we're lost. That's how I feel -- I not belong here."

Though terrible, their stories of childhood cut short are not unique on the floor of Stickley Furniture near Syracuse, New York.

Out of a workforce of more than 1,000, several hundred employees are immigrants. They all work for Alfred and Aminy Audi. Originally from Lebanon, Aminy left just before her country erupted into civil war in the 1970s. She lost her brother in the fighting.

"Part of my human experience is to look at the entire world as one small place where, hopefully, all people can coexist and there is an equal opportunity for all."

This part of New York state, between the cities of Utica and Syracuse, is home to tens of thousands of refugees from all over the world. It is a welcome and attractive area for refugees like Krdzic, who looked for a quiet place to live, far away from the conflicts they have fled. "My cousin lived here since 1996, and he sponsored us," he says. "He called us and told us that this is a good place to live, you know the climate is pretty much similar as it is in Bosnia and that's why we chose Syracuse."

Stickley is one of the top employers for refugees seeking work in the area. It is a business that has managed to survive the economic decline created by the loss of the manufacturing industry in the area. Stickley credits part of its survival to its workforce.

Stickley Furniture’s co-owner, Aminy Audi, explains. "We started working with the refugee resettlement program and as a result, we have a lot of people who represent 36 nationalities here who are thrilled to be given an opportunity, to have a door being opened for them. Very hardworking people, very committed people, and many of them have been with us for many years."

There are few political or cultural boundaries on the factory floor. Serbians work side by side with Bosnians, as do Ethiopians and Somalis, Vietnamese and Chinese.

"We have to remember that those people, the refugees, have been through so much in their life. They've left countries, they've been devastated by war... So if we can create an environment that provides another opportunity for them, they pay their own way. They basically work hard, and we pay them for their hard work."

Some of the employees feel the opportunity to work here has done more than just make a difference -- it has empowered them. When Stickley opened a plant in Vietnam several years ago, Nguyn was able to return to his country, this time as an adult, and as an American. "They give me a chance to go to Vietnam, come back to my country. And I'm very proud. I go over there and I am so happy. People respect me."

For Marka Bosso, Syracuse is now home, and Stickley is a job he would like to keep for a lifetime. "It was my first job, and it looks like it's going to be my last job."