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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Transition is hard to grasp for Somalians

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Imagine you and your family suddenly being deposited into a totally alien society, with a completely different language spoken and customs so foreign that some might be considered offensive.

Yet the only way one can adapt is to learn the native tongue and ways of the people who already live there.

That's what hundreds of Somali Muslim refugees have faced over the past few years in Shelbyville, and it hasn't been an easy transition.

Holly Johnson, director of Catholic Charities of Nashville, said that the main obstacles facing newcomers are language and cultural barriers.

"Of course, it's much easier when they already know someone in the community -- especially if that person speaks English and has been in the U.S. a while to help them navigate our culture," Johnson said.

Johnson explained that refugees "are very adaptable by definition," so while these areas are challenging, "they are not insurmountable by any stretch.

"It's probably more difficult in a smaller, tighter-knit community like Shelbyville than it is in a 'metro' area like Nashville, but again, they have family and friends that make them feel welcome there," she said.

Education is the key to ensuring that the Somali population successfully integrates into our community. One place that has been a great help in that respect is the Adult Learning Center on Depot Street.

But according to director Elaine Weaver, vast cultural differences still have to be overcome before that can happen.

Out of 150 non-native speakers enrolled in adult education in Bedford County, close to 50 to 60 are Somali. Last year, they made up 25 percent of those attending classes.

However, Weaver indicated that the Somalis have not been loyal to the program, meaning they were refusing to attend the classes on a regularly scheduled basis. Somalis would stay away from the classes for long periods of time and suddenly return.

"They don't understand our culture, they don't understand our methods," Weaver said. One Somali woman registered for classes in August, attended a few in September, but did not return to the classroom until this month.

"They don't understand yet that in order to have a teacher and provide free classes, that they have to be loyal to this program," due to the fact that the Adult Learning Center has to pay the teacher to be there, Weaver said.

The Department of Labor administers grants for the Adult Learning Center, which go through the Bedford County Board of Education. The problem is that Weaver is not allowed to count students who do not have 12 hours of attendance in the program, including a pre- and post-test.

Last year, Weaver said that almost 100 out of 265 students could not be counted because they did not meet the attendance requirements, and 75 percent of those failing to attend classes were Somalis.

But Weaver said that she can see a change in those few Somalis who stick with the program, who she says are very interested in bettering themselves by learning the language and culture.

"They are wonderful students, but it's a very small population ... about 10 to 15 ... but I think that's going to grow," Weaver said.

But differences remain between the English speaking instructors and the Somalis. The Center's first encounters with the newcomers did not go so well, with the Somalis being described as "demanding, aggressive and argumentative" and very different than anyone they had ever dealt with.

"They are very demanding and I don't know if that is because their culture in general," Weaver explained, but she has also been told that Somalis are being taken to Minneapolis after they arrive in America and given classes on "what they should demand, and what are their rights."

In the first year, some Somalis would walk into the building and tell instructors what they required without waiting in line or for an appointment, sometimes interrupting ongoing classes, Weaver said.

Another issue occurred during Ramadan, where two Somalis were asking to leave classes for religious reasons. Weaver admitted she was not aware of the Islamic requirement during this time and would not allow them to go. They returned with representatives of the Tennessee Immigration and Refugee Center in Nashville who explained how to deal with prayer time.

"I did not understand that if they don't break their 12 hour fast [during Ramadan] they would have to continue for another 12 hours," Weaver said. "Once we understand them, it makes it much easier."

One Somali in particular, who was described as "very impolite" a year ago, has seen much improvement since that time. Others had a habit of slamming their hands on tables while making demands, and they have been told that behavior is not acceptable in America.

"Education is a wonderful thing," Weaver said. "In a year's time, we've stopped some of that, but we had to be very firm with them."

Weaver compared the situation to when Hispanics first began appearing in the community and the learning curve they faced integrating into the community.

"It will take a while, just like it did with the Hispanics when they first came here," Weaver said.

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