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WILLISTON, N.D. — The sun wasn’t yet visible over the nearby farmhouse when Younger Konah and Ibrahim Kamara stepped out of their battered trailer. The matching black T-shirts they wore read, “100% All-American premium deliciousness.”
Decaying heavy machinery lay scattered around the field near the couple’s home: a bulldozer, pickups, a boat, a howitzer cannon, even an amphibious military transport vehicle. Several nearby trailers also housed migrant workers. Konah, 23, and Kamara, 26, each of whom escaped a West African war before arriving in this country as refugees, call this informal settlement “the camp.”
On their way to work at Fuddruckers, the hamburger chain, Konah was excited to meet the puppy a co-worker had offered her from a new litter. “I want something that will be mine, something I will train my way,” she said.
Konah and Kamara are two of the African-born workers who have come to this town in northwest North Dakota, a remote part of a remote state, to capitalize on the oil boom that has transformed the landscape and local economy. Between 2009 and 2013, the number of workers and those seeking employment in the county has more than tripled, from 15,000 to nearly 50,000.
No one tracks how many are African. But their stories recall American traditions of immigration and fortune seeking, recast for a time when all that matters is finding well-paid work.
Thanks to the Bakken, a formation of oil-saturated shale rock that lies under parts of North Dakota, Montana and Canada’s Saskatchewan province, the United States has surpassed Saudi Arabia as the top oil-producing nation. Geologists have long known about the oil, but it’s only since recent developments in hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” technology, a process of breaking the rock with pressurized water, that it could be profitably exploited. North Dakota is now the second-largest oil-producing state, after Texas, and saw its production almost triple from 2010 to 2013.
Williston functions more like a giant open-air factory than a small town. Pickup trucks and 18-wheelers swarm the streets at all hours. In fields on the town’s outskirts, natural gas flares burn next to the nodding pumpjacks. Retired general and CIA director David Petraeus, who visited earlier this year, said Williston resembles a “war zone.”
Due to skyrocketing demand, housing costs in Williston can approach big city rates; one-bedrooms often rent for $1,200 a month. Hotels and restaurants compete for business from a transient, overwhelmingly male population of oil workers. To keep workers here, service-industry jobs tend to pay far higher than they do elsewhere. A sign in front of the Walmart — which serves as both the industry canteen and the closest thing Williston has to a public square — recently advertised a starting wage of $17 an hour.
Before the boom, Williston was “in no way diverse,” according to Debbie Slais, director of the local library. But, she said, there are now native Spanish speakers and a Turkish community as well as immigrants from numerous African countries.
“No matter your situation, you find a job” in Williston, Kamara said. “It might not be the job you looking for, but you find a job you can survive on.”
Ibrahim Kamara grew up in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. His father was a soldier, and his mother was a social worker and community organizer before they both died in the country’s civil war, which ended in 2002. He fled with his grandparents and sister to nearby Guinea before relocating to Fargo, North Dakota, in 2003. “It was like we’d been saved from Earth to heaven,” he said.
Kamara, who has a bushy goatee and a gap between his front teeth, attended middle and high school and North Dakota State University in Fargo, but he began getting in trouble and dropped out. “We’re used to the hard life over there [in Africa], where when things happen between two men they fight it out,” he said. He received a shoplifting misdemeanor conviction and an aggravated-assault charge that was dropped to a misdemeanor, he said. As a result, he was at risk of being deported.
About two-and-a-half years ago, he met Konah, who had left Liberia during its civil war. Konah has high cheekbones, a few faded tattoos and, like Kamara, speaks with a thick accent. She said she lived in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and in Minnesota and Boston, before moving to Fargo. There, she worked as a cleaner, while Kamara worked as a cook at a TGI Fridays. Wages were low, about $8 an hour, and they heard about better opportunities in the oil fields. “We decided we had to move here to build a better future if we were going to be together,” Konah said.
“We came here with zero dollars,” Kamara said. “The only thing we had was gas in our car.”
After arriving in April 2013, they began visiting a temp company that arranged day work in exchange for a portion of their wages. They showed up at 6 a.m. to see if they would work that day. Kamara found jobs in construction and maintenance, while Konah cleaned and “flagged” — directed traffic around construction sites. On days when only Kamara worked, Konah sometimes spent her time in the car waiting for him.
But Kamara’s heart was in the kitchen. “I love meat,” he said. “I love cooking steaks.” He filled out an application at Doc Holliday’s Roadhouse, a new restaurant. When it opened, he got the job.
The owner then offered him additional work at another place, a brew pub that opened a few months later. Kamara said he has worked at five restaurants since moving to Williston; all of them opened in the last 18 months.
For their first three months in Williston, Kamara and Konah usually slept in their green Chevy Impala. Finding a place for the night could be a challenge. Walmart called the police on them, Kamara said, and locals sometimes “got scared if they see somebody sleeping outside their house.” (Walmart confirmed that its store doesn’t permit migrant workers to sleep in the parking lot.) The library allowed cars to park overnight, but there wasn’t always room for everyone. The couple first heard about the camp when a friend from Fargo suggested sleeping there.
Soon, they moved into the trailer, where they pay $600 a month for a cramped space that lacks running water or sewage. The land and trailers are owned by a Vietnam War-era veteran who has won local notoriety for his impersonations of World War II Gen. George Patton. He declined to give his name. Williston residents cannot legally turn their property into unlicensed campgrounds.
A bed with a leopard-print blanket filled one end of the trailer. There was room for a stove, a couch and a large flat-screen television. DVDs and a set of poker chips were spilled across the tiny kitchen table. Pallets of bottled water were stacked on one of the seats. At the far end of the trailer, there was a bunk bed made and ready for others who want to come to Williston and try their luck.
The pair paid to shower at a nearby truck stop and stored their food in pickle barrels to keep out the rats. In late September, the area experienced record temperatures above 90 degrees. Inside the trailer, it felt even hotter. In winter, the temperature can drop to negative 40. Konah and Kamara own a heater and have endured one winter so far.
The couple would like to move to an apartment eventually, but they worry about not having a credit history. They’ve paid application fees for apartments, Kamara said, only to be rejected. “We’re stuck here taking it a day at a time.”
Relaxing in an easy chair one afternoon, as a black-and-white Western played on television, the landlord estimated that there were 10 tenants living on his property. (A reporter met at least nine, seven of whom were born in Africa.) “I don’t know where they’d go if they got kicked out of here,” he said. “It’d be a sad thing for them.” In addition to his unlawful tenants, the landlord said, he was collecting royalties from seven oil wells on his land. “I’m surviving,” he said.
Kamara and Konah were too. Together, they earned more than $30 an hour, enough to save money and send some back to family in Africa. “You don’t have to have a lot to change someone else’s life,” Kamara said. “Americans didn’t have all their problems solved when they was helping me to come here for a better life.”
Kamara said his main contact in Sierra Leone had been his uncle, a hospital worker who recently died of Ebola. In September, the epidemic was much on their minds. “It’s the type of disease that can wipe out a generation,” Konah said.
It’s not work at Fuddruckers that draws most people to Williston. The oil industry is constantly hiring for well-paying jobs, which rarely require more than a high-school education. Truck drivers who haul equipment and frack water can reportedly make more than $80,000. Experienced oil-field workers earn considerably more.
Abdulateef Omar, 28, a truck driver who also lives in the camp, said he fled Sudan for West Africa. After spending time in a refugee camp in Ghana, he relocated to South Dakota. He had worked in hospital food service and studied at a technical college, but he said, the oil industry paid better.
Christopher Obey, a trucker from Liberia who had just arrived in the camp via Minnesota, found work within a day. His job had taken him to 25 states so far. “I just like to go around and make some money.”
For Kamara, a job in the oil fields was more elusive. He once applied to be a roustabout, a low-ranking laborer in the industry, but was rejected, he said. “They said I wasn’t qualified.”
That experience may be common for Africans here, according to Guleed Farah. The tall Somali-born man decided to take time off from his studies at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology to work as a lab technician for a major oil-services firm. “The majority of them can’t get their leg in,” often, he believes, because of racism. “You can’t do anything about it. You have to live with it.” Farah hasn’t been so hampered; he showed off a letter from a large oil company offering him starting pay of about $8,000 a month.
Farah said employers are also wary of Africans’ imperfect English. Oil rigs are “very fast moving environments,” he said, and accidents are “due to miscommunication most of the time.”
Williston’s highly transient population — oil workers often come to town for shifts measured in weeks before going home — is not conducive to civic life. “Everybody is basically doing what they gotta do to survive, which means that everybody working,” Kamara said. Even in the camp, he said, “We don’t have a time when we all get together and sit down, talk about life.”
Religious services provide a rare opportunity to commune. Kamara and Konah like to go to a Lutheran church when their shifts allow it. And a group of Muslims rents out a room at the library for Friday prayers. The gatherings have been going on for several months, said Slais, the librarian, since one of the men’s wives came in for story hour with a child and asked if they had space available.
Before prayers, the muezzin, a Senegalese man in a floor-length caftan who works as a janitor at Walmart, laid mats over the gray carpet. “It’s a blessed city,” the imam, a Ghanaian man who washes trucks, said. As he led the service, about 50 worshippers trickled in.
Kamara said he and Konah would like to stay in Williston for three years and then leave to start a business, perhaps an import/export company that trades with their native countries. If that works out, he said, the remittances they’re sending now are helping to maintain what could become business relationships.
On a sunny September afternoon, that future seemed far away. Konah played with her new puppy, small, black and adorable, perhaps a mix of pit bull and labrador. She named it Tiger. A doggie bed had been newly installed under the trailer’s postcard of a table.
Kamara sat outside, shirtless and wearing a skullcap; he dug into a dish Konah had prepared of rice, potato leaves, spinach, palm oil and meat, flavored with habanero peppers.
Konah offered a handful to Tiger. The dog was reluctant at first but eventually sampled the fiery mix, repeatedly licking her lips in what looked like agitation. “Your first African food,” Konah said, pouring Tiger a bowl of water. “She’ll get used to it.”
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