Optimism running on empty for African immigrants lured by oil dreams

by @willdizard April 28, 2015 5:00AM ET

Immigrants in big cities rely on networks from home during a downturn, but community in Williston, ND, still budding

North Dakota
Devinde Otieno, 22, a truck driver from Tanzania, stands outside the Faith United Methodist Church after a community dinner, in Williston, North Dakota, February 28, 2015.
Andy Richter for Al Jazeera America
Pastor Emmanuel Hitayezu worships alongside his wife Mbasabire Marie, right, during the weekly Swahili Church service at Cornerstone Baptist Church, Williston, North Dakota, March 1, 2015.
Andy Richter for Al Jazeera America

WILLISTON, N.D. — Four singers and a keyboardist warm up in the sanctuary of the Cornerstone Baptist Church at dusk on a crisp Sunday in February. The weekly service draws dozens of African immigrants — mostly from Congo, Rwanda and Burundi — who now live in America’s once-booming oil fields and go to the church to worship and build a community.

After an hour of impassioned hymns, Pastor Emanuel Hitayezu, 29, a refugee born in Congo who went to Williston in 2013 for work and now serves as the minister for the congregation, addressed the assembled.

“I had a vision from God tell me we are a gift for this country,” he said in Swahili, a language common to East and Central Africa. “As we see the train moving the oil, that’s how God called us — to keep moving around preaching the word. As they said in heaven, Hallelujah!”

The story of Williston’s oil boom and rapid urban expansion over the last 10 years illustrates the frustrations of native-born Americans amid the Great Recession and its aftermath. Thousands of jobless from across the country have come to the formerly sleepy farming town to rebuild their fortunes and restart their lives amid a fracking boom that brought unexpected wealth to the isolated, mostly rural state.

But it’s also a story of immigrants — largely from central and eastern Africa — building new lives in a cold and unfamiliar landscape.

They hold jobs and schedules similar to their U.S.-born counterparts and make comparable wages. They also worry about paying rent on time and staying warm in subfreezing winter temperatures. They work to send money home to parents, spouses and children. And now they, too, are coping with a sudden downturn in the price of oil that is cutting the legs from underneath the boom, causing companies and businesses in Williston to dramatically scale back their operations.

Once an oasis of job security, Williston is now a place of promise where optimism is running low.

Big companies such as Halliburton and Schlumberger that have invested millions in the Bakken Shale region (in western North Dakota, eastern Montana and southern Saskatchewan) have laid off tens of thousands of workers worldwide in the past few months, but the companies won’t specify how many layoffs have affected Williston.

A drilling facility in the Bakken region, near Williston, North Dakota, February 26, 2015.
Andy Richter for Al Jazeera America

To gauge what they refer to as the slowdown, Willistonians look toward the rig count. In April 2014, Williston had 184 active exploratory wells. A year later, that number has fallen to 87.

The slowdown hits the whole community, from oil rig workers to retail employees.

“They laid me off. They said it was too slow,” said Alice Nyirahirwa, 32, an asylee from Rwanda who has lived in the U.S. for four years. In January she lost her job at Interstate Powersystems, an auto parts store.

“I’m working at Walmart right now. I pay $1,500 in rent. All my money I get from Walmart goes to my bills, and I don’t have any money to buy gas,” she said.

Standards for hiring have become stricter, workers said, making entry into the local job market tougher for immigrants and nonimmigrants alike. When new drilling technology and high oil prices sparked the boom here in the late 2000s, employers were hiring almost any warm bodies to run rigs, drive trucks and staff stores. They couldn’t afford to be picky. Now with tighter profit margins, they must be.

Ousmane Ba, 20, from Senegal, wants to become a pilot but for now works the overnight shift at one of the three Kum & Go convenience stores in Williston. Like many local workers, his weekly hours were recently reduced — from 36 to a maximum of 20.

“It is $600 every two weeks. That’s not enough, and I was taking care of my parents back home,” he said.

Immigrants in larger cities are often able to rely on networks from their homelands to find jobs and housing. But the African immigrant community in Williston remains small — just a few hundred people in a community where 92 percent of the population is white, according to the U.S. census.

François Tembe, 45, stands inside a Cash Wise grocery store in Williston. A native of Angola, Tembe had been in Williston for less than three weeks when this photo was taken March 1, 2015.
Andy Richter for Al Jazeera America
Pumpjacks extract oil north of Williston in February.
Andy Richter for Al Jazeera America

François Tembe, 45, said he came to the U.S. in 2002 to escape political violence in Angola. After completing his petroleum engineering degree at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, he decided to move to Williston in February to find work to pay off his student loans.

“I came to North Dakota, where oil is booming. Boomtown — that’s why they said to come here,” he said, sitting in the dining area of Williston’s Cash Wise supermarket.

But he hasn’t had any luck. “There’s no chance as long as you don’t know anyone inside [the companies],” Tembe said.

He has struggled just to find a place to sleep. He expected to find shelter upon arrival, as he had when he ventured to Alaska years before to work on a fishing boat. His first two nights in Williston, he slept on the street in the middle of the winter and then moved to a dorm, what’s called a man camp, outside the city, operated by Project Heat, a local charity. He has also been relying on help from acquaintances, staying with a group of day laborers.

When Al Jazeera met him almost two weeks after his arrival, he still hadn’t found a job.

Tembe said he wishes he had done more research before he arrived. If he can’t find a job soon, he said he’ll leave Williston and maybe return later.

Even some of those who found work easily are having trouble now.

Devinde Otieno, 22, was born in the U.S. but spent most of his life in Tanzania.  He works as a truck driver hauling freshwater for use in fracking wells and said the slowdown has made work sporadic. He sleeps in his truck to save money and plans to return to Tanzania in the summer to help his family with the harvest.

But for some immigrants, going home will never be the same. About a month after first speaking with Al Jazeera, Ba said his father, Mamadou Samba Ba, 61, recently passed away in Guinea.

“He was my best friend forever,” he said.

But Ba remains undeterred to outlast the slowdown and still dreams of a pilot’s license.

“My plan now is to work very hard for a year and try to go back to school for aviation,” he said. “I know it is tough. But I’m ambitious and hopeful.”