OPINION: Somalians respond poorly to local hospitality

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Over the past few years, this community has given a helping hand and opened their arms to the new arrivals from Somalia.

In return, many of these refugees have given Shelbyville the finger.

When I began researching this story about the Somalis, I knew it would be controversial. We were aware that many in Shelbyville were having serious concerns about hundreds of Sunni Muslims moving here.

But as I began to talk with officials and others about our new neighbors, I was stunned by the reaction. Practically every person I spoke with locally said they had done everything possible to help out the refugees in adjusting to their new home and were treated very badly in return.

On the other hand, some I contacted for background on this story seemed to be so blinded by political correctness that they would excuse any behavior, no matter how upsetting or disruptive, as "part of their culture."

Did anyone involved in integrating these folks into American society stop to think that many in the heartland of America might not share this overly optimistic and myopic view of cultural diversity?

Unfortunately, the feelings and views of the communities the Somalis move to are almost never taken into account. Indeed, they are expected to simply keep their mouths shut and accept the newcomers without question. Those who protest are labeled racists by the various groups involved in resettling the refugees.

But many of the problems do not seem to have a basis in skin color. According to a story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution from 2003, when the Somali Bantu first arrived, "many cannot read or write even in their native language. Only in the last few months have most seen telephones, flush toilets and clocks ..."

According to Sasha Chanoff, who coordinates the classes for the International Organization for Migration, some Somalis saw a bathtub for the first time and asked whether it was some sort of boat.

"They really don't have any exposure to modern development," he told the Atlanta paper.

Suddenly introducing a society that is literally hundreds of years behind the times in the ways of hygiene, mannerisms, culture and the treatment of women into 21st Century America is a recipe for sociological disaster. It is a massive shock to the Somalis and doesn't do the local communities any favors either.

Indeed, if this was Star Trek, this action would be considered a major violation of the Prime Directive.

It also doesn't help that the most common image of Somalis in American popular culture is from the Ridley Scott film "Black Hawk Down," which depicts them as brutal, wild-eyed fanatics slaughtering U.S. troops in the name of Allah and barbaric warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid.

There are also the stories that come from other communities that have many locals nervous. For example, in October of last year, Said Biyad, a Bantu refugee from Somalia, killed his four children in Louisville, Ky., and attacked his estranged wife with a blunt object, turning himself into police afterward. He slashed the throats of the children, aged 2 to 8, because his wife "disrespected" him, he said.

A difference in culture, no doubt.

If Shelbyville's Somali community really wishes to "integrate into different societies to live together and to make our future here," as Imam Haji Yousuf told me, that process must work both ways. The arrogant sense of entitlement demonstrated by these new additions to Shelbyville must stop.

One can not expect a community to keep bending over backwards to help folks, only to treated with rudeness, disrespect and hostility. At some point, our welcoming attitude and southern hospitality will turn into resentment and distrust.

And as the comments posted on our website demonstrates, that is already occurring, in far greater numbers than we ever imagined.