Workplace

A United Nations of flag stitchers takes a break for a Christmas party

The circle clock on the factory wall ticked to noon. In English, a language that many workers barely understand, a voice on the public address system issued an invitation.

“Would everyone please join us in the Christmas party room?”

The employees inside Allied Materials & Equipment, a low-slung brick building at Kansas and Truman roads on the east side of town, stopped what the owners here have for more than a decade considered a rather important and honorable job:

They make American flags, among other products. And perhaps most important, they have the contract with the Department of Veterans Affairs to stitch together the thousands upon thousands of interment flags that each year are draped across caskets at the burials of America’s military vets. The same flags are then folded into tight triangles and presented to loved ones.

“Who better to sew an American flag?” observed Chief Operating Officer Ron Cole, 45, sitting at the Christmas party among co-workers. “These immigrants know what freedom means because they hadn’t been free.”

Or at least not all. Of Allied’s 140 employees, some among those working the sewing or cutting machines are immigrants from Mexico. But at least half are refugees from Vietnam, Burma (now Myanmar), Somalia, Sudan, Congo, Bhutan, Iran, Iraq, the Central African Republic, Mauritania, Thailand and El Salvador. Many were placed by Jewish Vocational Services.

At least 30 are Muslims who often opt to pray during breaks, said Steve Pack, 73, owner of the company his father started 64 years ago as an auto parts business.

Controversy and negative political rhetoric has been aimed at Muslim refugees since the November terrorist attacks in Paris and the massacre this month in San Bernardino, Calif.

Pack said he understands the need for security. But “I find it offensive,” he said of talk against Muslims and refugees.

“My family and I want to wish everyone a very happy holiday season filled with love and blessings,” Pack said to his employees in a speech before they dug into Stroud’s fried chicken. One at a time, translators read his speech in Swahili, Spanish, Vietnamese and Burmese.

“This is our own United Nations,” Pack’s wife, Karen, whispered as the speeches continued.

Women in hajib headscarves stood amid candy canes, penguins and snowflakes. Mustafa Jihad, 20, was there with his mother, Nuha Mahdi.

Born in Iraq, Jihad and his family fled Iraq to Egypt, where he found himself in the midst of the Tahrir Square uprising during the 2011 Egyptian revolution against former president Hosni Mubarak.

“I didn’t think it’s right,” he said of the revolution.

Jihad prints nylon black-and-white POW/MIA flags. His mom sews the red and white stripes of the American flags to the blue field of white stars. Amadou Sy, 55, also Muslim and from Mauritania, affixes the “short join,” the seven stripes from the right of the blue field to the field’s right edge. Others, including Ahmed Farah, 42, of Somalia, sew the “long join,” the six stripes that run the lower breadth of the flag.

Hoa “Wally” Pham came to the United States from Vietnam when he was 17. He’s 42 now and still wishes he had arrived at a younger age. He said he entered Westport High School hoping to better himself with more education, but was allowed to stay only two years before he aged out. He’s the floor supervisor now and knows the stories of some of the Vietnamese workers who were tortured in work camps before being allowed to come to the United States.

“Treated like animals, not like human beings,” he said, adding later: “Muslim, or whatever, they’re just trying to escape where they came from.”

Near the end of his speech, Pack announced that everyone would receive Christmas bonuses based on their time of employment, plus two paid days off for a four-day holiday weekend. Everyone clapped.

No matter their religion or language, everyone understands a Christmas present.

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler

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