Local services adapt to serve Somalis

Monday, December 24, 2007

Second of five parts

With thousands of refugees moving to the Middle Tennessee area from various countries, including Somalia, local communities suddenly find themselves having to provide services for the newcomers.

Holly Johnson is director of Catholic Charities of Tennessee, which handles much of the resettlement tasks for Somalis. She told the T-G that she was not aware of Shelbyville's large Somali population.

"We resettle them here in Nashville, primarily, and from there, people move around and don't always let us know where they are, nor do they need to," Johnson said.

Johnson said it was "hard to say" where the new arrivals come from once they arrive in this country, but she stated that they "would definitely not be direct arrivals from their country to Shelbyville, but may have arrived in Nashville through our office and then moved to Shelbyville after six months or more."

Some refugees may also be the "secondary migrants," who came to the state after arriving somewhere else first, of which Johnson says Tennessee receives many.

Some of the refugees were first settled in places like Ohio, but Johnson said that they "have since figured out that the grass is not always greener, and many are now moving here -- not in the numbers that initially migrated to Ohio, but we are seeing some folks move here after first 'trying out' Ohio."

"It's important to remember, too, that Somalis are a transient population. That's not to say that they move around constantly, but let's just say that they are not afraid of change," Johnson said.

However, Johnson said she has "no idea" how many Somalis have relocated in Bedford County and the surrounding communities.

Johnson said that the resettlement efforts are funded through the Department of State, which provides the group a total of $425 for each person that they resettle. The refugees are referred to Catholic Charities by the Department of State via their national headquarters for resettlement.

"This is money that is used directly on them -- to pay for their housing, utilities, food, etc.. Some are also enrolled in our employment, which enables us to help them for a few additional months," Johnson explained.

Catholic Charities also receives "nominal funding" to pay staff and other costs, Johnson said, and refugees receive a travel loan for their move here -- and have six months before the first payment is due.

"This is also a great way for them to start establishing a positive credit history," Johnson said.

Johnson said that refugees arrive in Nashville regularly, so the DHS office and schools there "are always prepared for them."

"When we get new populations (which Johnson said have recently been Burmese and Burundi), we notify the schools and, if they are coming in large numbers, our local DHS office so they will be prepared," she said. "We also stand ready to serve as a resource of information on these new populations."

But Johnson added that her office often do not get more than a week's notice of their arrival, "so there's sometimes little we can do to prepare ourselves or others." In Nashville, Catholic Charities coordinates with DHS, the schools, local health care clinics, and the Social Security office.

"If we are resettling refugees outside of the Nashville area, we work with those DHS offices, schools, etc... It is rare that we would resettle anyone outside of Davidson County, though, and would do so only if they had a family member in that community."

Johnson said they have not resettled anyone in Shelbyville since her tenure with the charity in 1999, "so these folks are moving there because of the available jobs, affordable housing, welcoming community, etc."

There is no doubt that Somalis are resettling in Shelbyville on their own. Most, if not all, of the Somalian newcomers live at Davis Estates on Anthony Road. The addition of these newcomers has had an impact on the county's school system.

Bedford County School Superintendent Ed Gray told the T-G that when the Somalis first began coming to Bedford County about four years ago, the school system were not given any notification that they would be moving here.

But regardless of that fact, the system must educate them. "It's the same as our Hispanic population, they are classified as English Language Learners [ELL] and they qualify for the English as a Second Language Program [ESL]," Gray said.

According to Connie Boutwell, who is the system's Federal Program Supervisor, 29 Somalian students are currently enrolled.

But Gray also emphasized that the school system was not prepared for the introduction of Somalis.

"With any immigrant, they bring a different culture, different aspects, and the basic things we do with Somalians, we do with Hispanics," Gray said. "This is America and we expect them to follow American rules and American laws and educational laws as well."

So far, the school system has only hired a single ESL instructor to deal with the Somalian community, but due to the large influx of Hispanic students over the past decade, the county already had 17 ESL instructors on staff, so many of them are simply learning the new language themselves. Instructors in these programs are paid out of state dollars, Gray said.

Bedford County schools already educate some 900 Hispanics, so the system was already prepared to deal with students speaking a different language. But had the Somalis settled in another rural county with a lower number of immigrants, the cost would no doubt be greater, Gray said.

"Maury County, Lincoln, and Giles, it would be a big problem for them," Gray said. "Already having the ESL program in place has worked for us."

Based on the number of students in the system already in ESL, Somalians make up a small percentage of people speaking a different language, Gray explained. But one problem the school system does have is finding interpreters for them. Gray says school system is having difficulty tracking qualified personnel down.

Gray also said that the school system has "very definitely" had some culture clashes with the Somalians since they have moved to Bedford County.

"Out of 11 principals, five of them are female, and we have assistant principals that are female. Their lack of respect for woman causes us a major problem on the front end," Gray said. He added that "we found it to be the case" that the Somalis have difficulties with women in supervisory roles.

Gray referred to "unrealistic expectations" in one incident, where the Somalis had apparently been promised service the school system does not provide, such as child care.

"We had a particular incident at one school where they had been promised it [child care] and they were demanding it," Gray said. "They are very demanding. Their culture is absolutely different from ours and different from the Hispanics also. I can't speak for all the Somalians, but their culture is tremendously different."

As for the kids themselves, there doesn't seem to be any real problem when it comes to the children getting along with the new arrivals. But Gray has heard concerns from both parents and adults about the Somali's traditional Muslim dress and how that would be dealt with if the school system adopts Standardized School Attire (SSA).

"We have to take into consideration religious tenets of a recognized religion and would they be allowed to continue to wear the head scarf or wrapping around their head? Yes," Gray explained, adding that Metro Nashville's legal department had already addressed the issue when Metro adopted SSA.

"They have to wear the Standard School Attire ... they can wear the head scarfs, but other than that, they can't wear the big flowing dresses," Gray said of Nashville schools.

WEDNESDAY: A culture clash