Following The Money Trail To Alaska's 'Ballard North' | KUOW News and Information

Following The Money Trail To Alaska's 'Ballard North'

Oct 18, 2015

A few years after Abdirahman Shire moved to the U.S., he found work at a Tyson Foods chicken factory in Kentucky.

That’s when he got a call from a friend, another Somali guy he’d known in a refugee camp in Uganda.

SHIRE: “They say, ‘Abdi, why you was in Kentucky? There is no money Kentucky! Come to Seattle, then you go Alaska! You making good money!’”

Shire asked how much. His friend said he could earn $9,000 in three or four months.

SHIRE: “I say, ‘Whoa, my God. That is too much money!’”

Shire, 44, is among an increasing number of Somalis and other East Africans who live in the Seattle area and work in the fishing industry in Alaska. There are so many people from Seattle working in Dutch Harbor that some call it "Ballard North." He immigrated to the U.S. in 2012.

Most seafood processing jobs start at minimum wage, which is $8.75 in Alaska. As long as there’s fish to process, most places give workers at least 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

With overtime, that’s like starting at $45,000 a year. The company also offers room and board, so the idea is that workers can save up.

In June, Shire packed his bags and flew to Dutch Harbor for a job with Westward Seafoods.

A bald eagle flies over the UniSea bunkhouses in Dutch Harbor close to the processing plant. Eagles are so abundant they are considered pests by the some of the locals.
Credit KUOW Photo/Alex Stonehill

It takes three hours to fly to Dutch Harbor from Anchorage. The plane is so small that passengers are seated according to their weight.

It’s also the largest fishing port in North America. Don Goodfellow, who runs the plant where Shire works, calls it an ethnic melting pot.  

GOODFELLOW: “You can sit down in our galley at lunchtime and hear five or six different languages being spoken at any given time.”

Goodfellow says Seattleites eat fish that came from Dutch Harbor all the time. A lot of it is pollock, a ground fish that gets made into the Filet-O-Fish at McDonald’s or a bag of frozen fillets from Costco.

The processing life isn’t glamorous. There are no views of the Alaskan wild, and the work is monotonous.  

Shire spends his days inside the factory. He gets so bored he sometimes yells, “Alaska!”

SHIRE: “Always I say, 'Alaska.' When I feel boring, I say, ‘Alaska!’”

He yells it so often that Alaska has become his nickname.

Shire walks with a limp from an old injury. He laughs often, showing off a snagged front tooth that points straight out.

Abdirahman Shire takes a smoke break outside his job at a seafood processing plant in Dutch Harbor (Unalaska).
Credit KUOW Photo/Alex Stonehill

On the job, he stands at a junction where one conveyor belt slopes down to meet another.

Workers line up along the belts. They wear hard hats, hair nets and rain gear under long rubber aprons. Everything smells like fish.

Shire wears heavy-duty rubber boots with a wool liner inside to keep warm. There are no windows, just fluorescent lighting. The machinery is loud.

The fish first get headed, gutted and cleaned. Then the pinkish white fillets are piled into a green plastic basket, which comes down the conveyor belt toward Shire.

He picks up the basket, weighs it on a little scale and puts it on another conveyor belt.

The plant is its own world. The galley and the bunkhouse are across from the factory. Shire says he almost never leaves.

He wakes at 5 a.m.

SHIRE: “I take my shoes, I take my jacket, I take my badge for clock, I take some breakfast. Then I go production.”

His shift runs from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week. Lunch is at 11. On this day, it’s garlic bread and spaghetti.

SHIRE: “Today is good food.”

Abdirahman Shire (right) and his friend Ali Elmi eat lunch in the processing plant cafeteria.
Credit KUOW Photo/Alex Stonehill

He eats with Ali Elmi, the Somali friend who told him about Alaska.

Lunch is followed by a quick cigarette outside the plant. And then back to the line.

Shire is Muslim, so he steps away to pray five times a day. He prays next to a row of lockers in the break room. He uses a napkin as a makeshift prayer rug just for his forehead.

But it’s a challenge. This year he decided not to fast during the holy month of Ramadan. The days in Alaska are just too long, and he wouldn’t have been able to eat or drink for 16 to 22 hours a day.

He did take a day off at the end of Ramadan. It’s the only day he didn’t work all summer. He says Muslims working at the different seafood plants got together to celebrate.

Abdirahman Shire working on the line at Alyeska. His job here is weighing filets for packaging.
Credit KUOW Photo/Alex Stonehill

When his shift ends, Shire clocks out and eats dinner in the galley. Then comes the best part of his job: returning to his room. He lucked out and got a room that would normally be for three people all to himself.

There's a bunk bed plus a single twin. That’s where Shire sleeps. He bought a fuzzy blanket with a tiger on it in Seattle.

He checks out DVDs from the library to watch on his laptop at night. He usually makes it through a whole episode of “Burn Notice” before falling asleep.

Shire is saving the money he earns here to help his family in Somalia. Last year he sent $4,500 to his younger brother who bought a taxi. Now he's supporting himself, so Shire doesn’t have to send him more money.

This year he’s planning to help another brother get into long-haul trucking.

Shire said that after a few more seasons earning money to help more of his five siblings, he’ll be ready to start building his own life in the U.S.

Alex Stonehill and Sarah Stuteville contributed reporting.

This series, "Ballard North," was produced with the support of the Program Venture Fund, in partnership with The Seattle Globalist. It was reported by Jessica Partnow with additional reporting by Alex Stonehill,  Sarah Stuteville, and Feliks Banel. Edited by Carol Smith.