A Tennessee Town and its Somali Refugees

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Lisa Mullins: The rural Tennessee town of Shelbyville has seen an influx of Muslim refugees from Somalia in recent years. It hasn't been a simple adjustment for many longtime residents. Some of them have welcomed the Somalis to their little town; others have been suspicious.

Male: From what I know about Muslims, they don't like us. They're out to kill us as we know from 911, and it just scares me.

Mullins: A range of reactions of Shelbyville old timers and newcomers finds voice in a documentary. The documentary is called Welcome to Shelbyville. It airs tonight on Public Broadcasting Service stations. Kim Snyder is the director and producer of Welcome to Shelbyville. She's now in New York. Can you describe Shelbyville for us?

Kim Snyder: Yes, Shelbyville is a small town in the heart of the Bible belt in Tennessee, about an hour or so south of Nashville. And it's population now is about 17,000. As you mentioned, it has had a lot of rapid demographic change, first with Latinos coming in the '90s, and more recently a number of Somali refugees, a sizable number.

Mullins: Did the Somalis choose Shelbyville or were they placed there?

Snyder: I think what we're seeing in Shelbyville is typical on a microcosm of a phenomenon that's happening across the country, which is more of a secondary migration. These people are coming often through gateway cities like Nashville, or Seattle, or Minneapolis, and then they go to where they find jobs, which are often in meat processing plants. So this is something that is very familiar to towns like Shelbyville across the country.

Mullins: One of the people you profile is a Somali woman named Hawo Siyad, one of the people who prepares the chicken breasts that you can buy at the super market, cutting up the chicken then putting it on the conveyor belt, the breasts on the conveyor belt. What is life like for her and what did she flee from?

Snyder: Well, Hawo has come here like many people as part of the US refugee program to flee a war torn country, Somali. And she has come here for a better life and for work. She has come here as a legal refugee. And as she said in the film, it's been mixed; she doesn't always feel welcome. At one point, I'm always touched when she speaks about wanting to talk to all people.

Hawo Siyad: The Somalian is a good people. I want to talk to all people, but I don't know what's wrong.

Mullins: And this is a woman who used to be a nurse. She said she hopes to be a nurse once again. Let me bring into the conversation now David Lubell, who is in Atlanta. He is executive director of Welcoming America, a grassroots organization that helps to integrate new immigrants into non-traditional immigrant communities. David, while you're in Atlanta right now, you used to live in Tennessee. You know Shelbyville. Tell us about the climate that the Somalis entered into and some of the difficulties local people had to face with the new population there.

David Lubell: I've known people in Shelbyville for a long time and they're really warm, welcoming people overall. But there is the issue of fear and when demographics change people become more afraid. And it was serious. I mean, the neighboring town of Columbia, TN, that had a mosque, the mosque was actually burnt down. So the threat of violence was real in Shelbyville. Then real tensions get worse and worse. You know, misunderstandings start to happen. So, for example, some people believe that the Somalis were unhygienic.

Male: We heard reports about the hygiene of the refugees that quite frankly is disgusting.

Male: Whether they're rumors or facts I don't know about the living conditions that the Somalis live in.

Mullins: So, David, what is the process by which you're able to bring willing people as there were in Shelbyville, together to make immigrant communities work?

Lubell: So we worked with a small group of people, many who are in the film, to train them to work on going out into the community, going out to churches, to rotary clubs, and talking about the experiences; having immigrants talk about their personal experiences. We also use communications tools. We had billboards up in Shelbyville.

Mullins: And what did the billboards say?

Lubell: They had different messages, but some were religious, some said 'Welcome to immigrant you once were.' Some were, 'I was a stranger and you welcomed me' --obviously, a verse from the Bible. And then you have engagement starting and people starting to shed their fear when they hear an immigrant telling their personal story. And when they understand that they share things in common and values in common, that's when welcoming can begin. Until you address both communities' fears people don't want to be welcoming. But when you can, people understand that we share a lot in common and there's a real transformation.

Mullins: Well, it's not a panacea, but it seems to work, and it works to the extent that right now the U.S. state department is using the film as a teaching tool. Kim, can you tell us about that?

Snyder: Yes, the state department has been using the film in various embassies throughout the world, and will also have a screening tomorrow as part of the refugee resettlement program, the division in the state department that deals with refugee policy, so that's very exciting as well.

Mullins: Well, thank you very much. Kim Snyder, director and producer of Welcome to Shelbyville, and David Lubell, the executive director of Welcoming America. You can find out a lot more on our website, theworld.org. And Welcome to Shelbyville is gonna be on PBS tonight. Thank you both very much.

Snyder: Thank you.

Lubell: Thank you.