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For centuries, immigrants in search of a better life have been drawn to America's largest cities. Now, in part because of the meatpacking industry, recent immigrants are seeking out small, rural towns. And many of these towns are now struggling to provide the social services needed by such a diverse population.

From Noel, Missouri, Abbie Fentress Swanson reports.

ABBIE FENTRESS SWANSON, BYLINE: Noel, Missouri has been dubbed the canoe capital of the Ozarks. But this town of fewer than 2,000 residents thrives, because of the Tyson Foods chicken plant located here. It alone employs 1,600 people. Just 20 years ago, Noel only had about half as many residents and most of them were white. Then in the '90s, Hispanics, mainly Mexicans, moved to Noel to process chicken. Pacific Islanders and refugees from parts of Africa and Myanmar followed.

LISA DORNER: We do have small towns that have had 100, 200 percent growth that have really changed overnight over the past 20 years, and have a much larger immigrant population than they used to.

SWANSON: University of Missouri Education Professor Lisa Dorner says such major demographic changes don't always sit well with local residents. For Somali newcomers, Noel has been particularly challenging. In a recent incident, tires on a dozen of their cars were slashed and some Somalis, like Farah Burale, feel isolated and unwelcome.

FARAH BURALE: Overall, this community, they are not welcoming to people looking different. Because of that reason we are isolated. We see each other in the chicken plant or just on the street, without saying Hi.

SWANSON: Faisal Ali Ahmed works the night shift driving a forklift at the Tyson plant and has struggled to find housing in Noel.

FAISAL ALI AHMED: If they shut down this company now, nobody stay (unintelligible). Even, I think, the people living a long time, they cannot stay.

SWANSON: John Lafley is the mayor of Noel. He says long-time residents need to be sensitized to immigrants' needs and immigrants need to try to fit in.

MAYOR JOHN LAFLEY: We're trying to assimilate people that don't understand the American way, I should say. And they want to keep their own ways which is, you know, not seeing that unpopular.

SWANSON: Lafley says Tyson is pushing for more housing. But he's concerned about the town's infrastructure.

LAFLEY: We're about at 80 percent right now with our sewer plant. And so, any more building would tax our sewage plant more.

SWANSON: The mayor says there's no money in the budget to provide the social services needed in this small, remote town. The nearest food pantry and free clinic are miles away. So many plant workers turn to their children's schools for help.

ROD: My name is Rod.

ERIN MCPHERSON: I'd Rod. How do we spell Rod?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: R-O-D, right?

MCPHERSON: R-O-D, right? No silent e on the end. Very good, go ahead and fill that in.

SWANSON: At Noel Primary School this morning some, Hispanic students are completing English language exercises. Not Isac Martinez. Teacher Erin McPherson asks the 9-year-old, what's wrong?

MCPHERSON: What's wrong?

ISAC MARTINEZ: I threw up yesterday.

MCPHERSON: You threw up last night? You go to the doctor?

MARTINEZ: No.

SWANSON: As is often the case here, the teacher is part social worker. Tyson wages start at $9.05 an hour, so about 90 percent of Noel students qualify for free or reduced cost meals. That makes the schools the safety net for children whose parents work at the plant.

ANGIE BREWER: We are the government agency in town.

SWANSON: Noel Elementary School Principal Angie Brewer.

BREWER: People come here if they need shoes, if they need clothes, if they're hungry. We send 37 backpacks home every weekend with kids that just don't have enough food.

SWANSON: Immigration issues, like parents being deported, have also become part of a typical school day here.

BREWER: We have actually had, last year, we had three families come in the next day - their dad was gone in the night.

SWANSON: When she became principal three years ago, Angie Brewer reached out to Tyson for additional assistance to help feed her neediest families.

BREWER: Some of these they're my own children's brand and these are my brands. You know? They're real people and they deserve the best.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

SWANSON: At the housing project next to Noel Elementary, a 13-year-old Somali refugee named Mohamed Hassan is playing soccer with friends. His parents moved here two years ago to work at Tyson. And Hassan says he likes Noel.

MOHAMED HASSAN: When I first came, I didn't know any English. And now I do a lot. I learned at this school and I am going to say to them thank you.

SWANSON: Tyson is hiring again and that means there will be soon be a new wave of immigrants for this small Missouri town to try to assimilate.

For NPR News, I'm Abbie Fentress Swanson in Noel, Missouri.

BLOCK: And that story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a Public Radio reporting project that focuses on agriculture and food production issues. Tomorrow: A story from the meatpacking plant of Garden City, Kansas, which takes a more proactive approach as it welcomes new immigrants.

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