By Camille Vandendriessche, Assistant Copy Editor
Visitors do not need a GPS system to find the only cookie factory in Abilene. When approaching Fehr Foods’ parking lot, the one-story, brick-built building exhales such a strong aroma of bakery that it can be smelled inside the car.
“Did you smell the cookies from outside?” asked Susanna Lubanga (’04), employment specialist at the Abilene branch of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a humanitarian organization that helps refugees escape from war and resettle in the United States.
IRC helps many of its refugees obtain their first job on U.S. soil at Fehr Foods. Over the past five years, 120 refugees have worked at the cookie factory, Lubanga said.
“[Fehr Foods] is our biggest employer,” Lubanga said. “Refugees can start working without speaking English. IRC helps for interviews; we translate in French, Swahili or Kirundi.”
Fehr Foods is an Abilene-based company that produces low-cost cookies commercialized under its trademark, Lil’ Dutch Maid. Steve Fehr founded the company in 1992, beginning with one work shift, two ovens, three clients and about 40 product items, according to Fehr Foods’ Web site.
The company has grown on the national market, now working three shifts and providing cookies to more than 100 retailers in 27 states, as well as Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Panama and Puerto Rico.
The variety of products has more than doubled over the past 10 years with cookies of all kinds of flavors; 50,000 pounds of sugar are used every day to produce 8,000 pounds of cookies per hour, according to the Web site. However, public and media are not authorized to visit the factory.
Tera Gibson (’07), human resources manager at Fehr Foods, said the company now employs 270 people in Abilene and owns another bakery in Oklahoma with about 40-50 employees. Employees work 40 hours a week, five days a week, on one of three shifts: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.; 3-11 p.m.; and 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Gibson said workers like that Fehr Foods provides a steady, full-time employment that pays weekly. She also said the company communicates with non-English speakers by having long-time employees do the translations in English, French and Swahili.
Gibson said the starting wage is about $6.60 an hour.
“It is unskilled labor,” she said.
Refugees perform jobs that include counting and sorting cookies on trays, putting them in plastic slips, packing cookies in boxes, moving boxes onto pallets, mixing ingredients and supervising machines, Lubanga said.
“It is very monotonous,” Lubanga said. “[Employees] have to stand still all the time.”
Lubanga said one advantage of working at Fehr Foods is the consistency of schedules. She said the times are practical for mothers who work during school hours, so they do not have to pay for childcare. She also said an Abilene public bus stops near the factory, which is convenient for refugees who do not have a car.
Lubanga said the refugees from Burundi especially enjoy working at Fehr Foods because it often involves only one task and is straightforward.
Vedaste Nkundizanye, refugee from Kibuye, Rwanda, worked at Fehr Foods from September to December 2005. He said he was moving boxes onto pallets from 3-11 p.m., while taking English classes in the morning.
“It was a physical and difficult job,” he said. “I found another job with a better salary.”
Nkundizanye quit his job at Fehr Foods after two months once his English skills improved. He said that working at Fehr Foods helped him learn how to work with Americans.
Gibson said higher positions like maintenance pay more, up to $10-11 an hour. She also said the ingredient mixers, who work in the back of the factory, probably have the hardest job because they stand on their feet for as long as seven hours.
“It takes training,” Gibson said.
Massela Dezyth, refugee from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, worked at Fehr Foods for six months between February and August 2007. She said she did not speak English and worked at several line positions, always from 3-11 p.m.
“The work itself was not difficult, but the pace of the machines was too fast,” Dezyth said. “When someone was not quick enough at one spot, it paralyzed the whole line.”
Dezyth said she left her job because the pay then, $6 an hour, was too low for the load of work.
“It was too demanding for the salary; it was going to make me ill,” she said.
Still, Dezyth said it was a good starting experience, and she felt always supported by her supervisor.
Dezyth now works at Coltek, a carbon fiber factory in Abilene, where she makes $10 an hour and the pace is slower, she said.
Like Coltek and Fehr Foods, other factories such as Coca Cola, Pepsi and PWP (plastic) offer potential work for refugees who just arrived in Abilene. While the IRC gives the refugees money for their first four to eight months in the U.S, these entry-level jobs enable them to become independent financially, so they can begin the new life they had hoped for in America.