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Adjustment is rougher for some cities

Friday, December 28, 2007

Shelbyville is just one of several cities across the country which have found themselves with new neighbors from a culture as different from theirs as night and day.

But as one examines how other communities have reacted to large numbers of Somali refugees moving in, it is obvious that Shelbyville has adjusted far better than other towns and cities in America.

While many of the VOLAGs (volunteer agencies) like Catholic Charities and other organizations involved in refugee resettlement promote diversity and opening communities up to different cultures, there also have been concerns about the process.

According to one state department official, allowing refugees into the country is not only done out of charity but also out of national security concerns, the Louisville Courier-Journal recently reported.

"When you have people in these hopeless situations, this is where terrorism breeds, this is where failed states come from," Assistant Secretary of State Ellen R. Sauerbrey said.

Sauerbrey said that America has resettled about 50,000 refugees from 67 countries in the past year and 70,000 or more could be received in the coming year.

Criticisms have been expressed about how the various charitable groups involved in the resettlement process are more interested in receiving grants from the government while large groups of refugees move to towns that are not prepared nor capable of accepting them.

According to Shelbyville City Manager Ed Craig, no one let his office know that a large number of refugees would be resettling here. Craig said he has "no idea" when the refugees began to move into the community.

As for the number of Somalians that have moved here, that figure varies depending on who you speak to.

"I started hearing 200, then I heard 400, then I heard 500 ... and the only source I hear that is from the Somalians who say 'this is the size of our community,'" Craig said.

One county offical put the figure at 1,100, while Imam Haji Yousuf, the spiritual leader of the Somali Muslim community, gave an estimate of 250 to 300.

The interaction Craig has had with representives of the Somalian community has consisted of visits by those who were asking how they can work with the city to improve relations between themselves and their neighbors.

Craig said from his perspective, the city didn't need to prepare for the new arrivals, but the county's school system would have to.

According to a report by the National Governors' Association in spring 2007, the nation's governors "continue to be concerned about the lack of adequate consultation on the part of the voluntary agencies [VOLAGs] and their local affiliates in the initial placement of refugees and on the part of the federal government in the equitable distribution of refugees and entrants."

But while Shelbyville has more or less welcomed the Somalis, not every community have accepted these newcomers with open arms.

In Emporia, Kansas, where about 400 refugees work at the Tyson Foods meat processing plant, many citizens are talking about the sudden influx. An estimated 750 to 1,000 Somali refugees are currently living in Emporia, according to locally published reports.

During a recent town hall meeting attended by hundreds, residents in the small Kansas town expressed concern about many issues, including the spread of tuberculosis, due to the fact that 160 of the refugees have latent TB, meaning it is in their system but not active or contagious.

In January of this year, one Somalian who worked at the Tyson plant in Emporia died of tuberculosis. However, the plant manager stated in a news release that TB is not a food safety concern and is not transmitted by food.

The reception was even worse for the thousands of Somalian refugees who settled in the mill town of Lewiston, Maine in 2001-02. They moved from Atlanta because of the low crime rate, but so many came so quickly that the sudden population boom taxed city services, schools and welfare rolls.

It also wasn't helpful that the migration to Lewiston was occuring at the time following the Sept. 11 attacks. Another factor was the release of the movie "Black Hawk Down," and the fact that one soldier who was killed in that battle in Somalia had grown up near Lewiston.

There were no jobs waiting for the Somalians and in 2002, only 40 of the 400 to 500 adults were working. Lewiston's mayor finally wrote an open letter to the refugee community, stating that they had "been overwhelmed ... our city is maxed out financially, physically, and emotionally.

"The large number of new arrivals cannot continue without negative results for all. The Somali community must exercise some discipline and reduce the stress on our limited finances and our generosity," the letter stated.

However, the mayor was accused of bigotry for writing the letter and protests -- both supporting and against the Somalis -- took place.

According to the New Yorker Magazine, last year it was estimated that 3,000 refugees lived there and well over 50 percent of Somali immigrant adults were still unemployed, even after 5 years from their arrival in Lewiston.

The same problem nearly came to Holyoke, Mass., where their city council also opposed resettling Somalis because the city didn't have enough money to educate and train them.

Citizens of Ft. Wayne, Ind., are expressing similar concerns about the resettlement of Burmese refugees, where 700 were placed this year, with another 1,000 planned for 2008. In all, 3,500 of these refugees from Burma live in Ft. Wayne.

And in Hagerstown, Md., the Virginia Council of Churches closed down an office to resettle Somali refugees, citing an "unwelcoming" community, according to published reports.

But members of that town council stated that the organization had exercised arrogance by relocating the refugees to the town before seeking the input of its officials.

Another councilperson said the refugees "were dumped in the city without support and resources," the Hagerstown Herald-Mail reported, and that the organization should have consulted with local government bodies.


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