Gov. Jared Polis speaks to the class during the Zoom session on May 31.
Gov. Jared Polis recently paid a virtual visit to adult learners in a Colorado State University health education class for immigrant and refugee communities in Fort Morgan, fielding questions and dispelling rumors about the COVID-19 pandemic.
The class, part of a CSU partnership with the Colorado Health Foundation, began in August 2019 to serve Somali- and Spanish-speaking populations in the town, which is one of the most diverse municipalities in Colorado. Since late February, when it switched to virtual meetings on Zoom, the weekly class has been focused primarily on the coronavirus and related workplace topics. All of the students either work at meat-packing plants in the area or have family members who do, and the instructors have been busy correcting misinformation about the pandemic that has been circulating in the community.
CSU Professor Eric Ishiwata of the Department of Ethnic Studies, who has been doing outreach work in Fort Morgan for more than seven years, launched the education initiative with Bruno Sobral, a professor in CSU’s Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathlogy, using a two-year, $345,000 grant from the foundation. Ishiwata serves on a subcommittee for the New Americans Initiative that Polis created last fall to advise him on immigrant and refugee issues. Ishiwata said the virtual visit from Polis was requested as part of feedback from Fort Morgan residents that he had shared with the head of that working group, Kit Taintor, Polis’ senior advisor for new American integration. Taintor put it on the governor’s calendar.
“I had no expectation that the invitation would be taken seriously,” Ishiwata said. “It’s beyond a lot of the students’ wildest dreams that the governor of the state would drop in on their class.”
But on May 31, Polis joined the class of Somali speakers for about 15 minutes, and course instructor Mohammed “Mahad” Direh acted as translator.
“As-salamu alaykum,” Polis said in his introduction, using a traditional Arabic greeting meaning “Peace be upon you.”
He thanked the students for engaging in safe religious and worship practices.
“I know that’s hard on people of all faiths — Christian, Muslims, Jews, Hindus — and we’re doing this in as safe a way as possible,” Polis said. “Many of you have families overseas, and I know you’re very worried about that. Immigration lawyers can be expensive. Nonprofits have legal services that can help, and we gave Professor Ishiwata a list of nonprofit legal entities.”
He added that there was free COVID testing in Fort Morgan in response to local outbreaks at the Cargill meat-packing plant, Leprino Foods and Eben Ezer Lutheran Care, a nursing home.
“It’s also important to know that when you get tested for free, immigration status — citizen status — does not have any impact,” Polis told the group. “You can get tested, and no one asks you whether you’re a citizen.”
Mohammed “Mahad” Direh leads the health class for Somali speakers in Fort Morgan in August 2019. Photo by John Eisele
The governor was alluding to one of the many inaccurate rumors circulating in the community that may have deterred residents from getting tested or seeking medical help. Ishiwata said the fear of having one’s citizenship status questioned is one of many unfounded concerns that the students have shared with him and the instructors of the coursework.
“We were hearing wild rumors and misinformation circulating among the residents,” Ishiwata said. “So I felt really fortunate that participants were comfortable enough to ask those questions, and then we were able to provide accurate information in Spanish and Somali.”
Some students asked if it was true that only alcoholics and drug addicts can get COVID-19. Others asked where they could buy the cure, or if it was true that hospitals were conducting experiments on refugees and immigrants. Another rumor was that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was poisoning food pantry groceries headed for immigrants’ homes.
“It was worrying me that their kids who needed food weren’t getting it because of inaccurate information due to language,” Ishiwata said, adding that the students are encouraged to share what they’ve learned with their friends and family. “Now the students feel more empowered with accurate information.”
Direh acted as facilitator for the students’ conversation with Gov. Jared Polis and Kit Taintor, his senior advisor for new American integration. Photo by John Eisele
Susana Guardado, who attended CSU and is the director of the nonprofit OneMorgan County, leads the Spanish-language course. She said she heard similar falsehoods, and even found an online video describing the rumor about ICE poisoning food. Guardado helped her students understand how to assess the credibility of various sources of information found online.
“It made me think about how I assess what’s credible information myself,” she said. “It wasn’t like I was lecturing, we were having these conversations and discovering together. We discussed the idea that just because something is online doesn’t mean it’s true.”
Ishiwata said that in addition to dispelling rumors, in recent months the course covered COVID prevention, workplace precautions, unemployment benefits and even stress relief and mental health tips.
“The one thing I’m most proud about now is how this COVID challenge activated our land-grant mission,” Ishiwata said. “I’m really proud of the way CSU was able to jump into this critical issue and use our resources and expertise to help.”
Before signing off the May 31 session and referring additional questions to Taintor, who was also on the Zoom call, Polis left the students with one final message.
“You are an important part of Colorado’s success,” Polis said.
Ishiwata and his students have been active in Fort Morgan since 2013. They have supported music festivals and community forums; a workshop on translation/interpretation, bullying and interpersonal relations; professional development trainings on diversity for Morgan County public school teachers; and campus visits to CSU for Fort Morgan High School students. In 2017, three alumni from CSU’s College of Liberal Arts made a 360-degree, virtual-reality documentary about Ishiwata’s work there.