(T-G Photo by Brian Mosely)
For a rural Tennessee town like Shelbyville, the public square typically displays a cross-section of the entire community.
People are on their way to the county courthouse. Perhaps folks are there to shop or to drop by one of the banks to conduct important business.
Lawyers, farmers, business people and just plain folks dot the sidewalks as they go about their daily routine.
Including groups of Somali men and women in traditional Muslim dress.
They drive in traffic alongside us, shop at Wal-Mart and other businesses in Shelbyville and work for one of the county's largest employers.
One local official says there may be as many as 1,100 Somalis in Bedford County, although estimates vary.
Depending on who you talk to, these new neighbors are either greeted with indifference, whispers or even fear.
But whatever the reaction, the reality is that these new arrivals are working and living among us. How they will assimilate and become part of the community has yet to be determined.
One question the T-G has frequently heard asked is: How do people from the war-torn African country of Somalia arrive in such numbers in our community?
The answer is through the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services.
According to ORR's web site, their mission is "founded on the belief that newly arriving populations have inherent capabilities when given opportunities, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) provides people in need with critical resources to assist them in becoming integrated members of American society."
Those granted refugee status overseas by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are brought to this country for resettlement by the State Department. From there, voluntary agencies (also known as VOLAGs) and ORR help out with their resettlement and integration into American society.
Refugees are also eligible to receive ORR benefits and services from the first day they arrive in this country.
Many refugees move to Nashville, which is one of three locations selected in 2001 to participate in an experiment in public-private partnerships of immigrant and refugee integration, which was primarily funded by ORR.
According to the Carnegie Reporter, Nashville ranked first in the number of new immigrants arriving from 1991 to 1998 relative to the number of foreign-born counted there in 1990. Atlanta placed second and Louisville was third.
While Hispanics make up a large number of immigrants coming to Nashville, other nationalities are settling in Music City as well. The Department of State has been working closely with VOLAGs to relocate refugees to Nashville, including groups from the Middle East, Europe and Africa.
For example, Nashville has one of the nation's largest groups of Kurdish refugees, approximately 7,000, and also housed one of five U.S. polling stations in the country for Iraqi expatriate voters during the January 2005 elections.
Approximately 5,000 Somalis live in the Nashville area, according to published reports.
Refugees make up only 10 percent of immigrants to the U.S., according to a study by the Brookings Institution. Using data from ORR, Brookings learned that more than 2 million refugees have arrived in the United States since the Refugee Act of 1980 was established.
Also, according to the Brookings study, unlike other immigrants, "refugees have access to considerable federal, state, and local support to help them succeed economically and socially."
According to Regina Surber, director of community services in Tennessee for the Department of Human Services (DHS), some of the Somali refugee arrivals to the area are direct resettlement clients while others may be "secondary migrants" who were originally resettled in other states and / or other parts of Tennessee.
"What happens most often in new resettlement communities is that the first to move there are newly arriving refugees, who, after becoming familiar with the area, encourage their relatives and friends to join them," she said.
Surber said that Tennessee had 172 arrivals from Somalia last year and since 1996, they have resettled 1,878 refugees in the state "but many others have moved here from other states over the years."
According to information supplied by DHS, a total of 13 refugees have directly settled in Bedford County from Somalia -- only two in 2005-06 and 11 in 2006-07. However, Surber said these figures do not include secondary migrants, people who have relocated here after first settling somewhere else. DHS does not have a mechanism in place to track such secondary migration.
The refugees are placed by national resettlement agencies, Surber explained, with four such organizations in the Middle Tennessee area -- two of which are Catholic Charities of Tennessee, Inc. and World Relief, Inc., both located in Nashville.
The agencies find local churches and community partners to assist in the resettlement process, financially and with volunteers as well as donated goods and services. The VOLAGs in Tennessee are local affiliates of national organizations, which receive federal funding for the provision of their services, Surber said.
Surber explained that the refugees are provided with employment, language, and case management services as a part of the resettlement process.
According to the State Department, after 12 months of residency, refugees are required to apply for adjustment of their status to that of permanent resident alien. After five years in the United States, refugees may apply for citizenship.
MONDAY: How are Somalis impacting local schools?