On Wednesday, a delegation from the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition dropped by our offices to pick our brains about how to help out Shelbyville's Somali community, which was the focus of a recent series of articles that have provoked quite a discussion in our community.
According to their website, the group has a mission to "empower immigrants and refugees throughout Tennessee to develop a unified voice, defend their rights, and create an atmosphere in which they are viewed as positive contributors to the state."
The main question I had for the assembled group was this: Where you guys four years ago when the Somalis began to move enmass to Shelbyville?
They had no answer.
Herein lies one of the biggest problems that we and other towns across the nation have faced when hundreds of refugees suddenly take up residence in their communities. Apparently, no one representing these newcomers approached our local leaders about the sudden and unexpected influx of these displaced souls.
Four years later, and only after our series on the Somalis was published, is something finally being done to help these folks adjust to their new lives in America.
When an official with local emergency management has to call this reporter because they have absolutely no contacts with a group of foreign nationals that has been living in the county for nearly half a decade, you know you have a serious problem.
Given the Somalis' distrust of government and the media, this is a recipe for disaster. In an actual emergency, such as an Avian Flu pandemic or other such incident, communications with the Somalis would be vital, yet there has been nothing in place to deal with this situation since their arrival.
No advocacy group has given these folks a helping hand since they've been here. When I first contacted Catholic Charities, the organization that is resettling Somalis and other groups throughout the nation, they had "no idea" that the refugees were living in Shelbyville in such large numbers.
Instead, their current policy apparently just brings the hapless refugees into the country, gives them extremely limited orientation on how to properly function in western society, and then sets them loose to fend for themselves.
This is a very bad idea. To simply relocate members of a totally alien culture into a community without the needed support, services or training to help them adjust to 21st Century America is immoral and wrong.
No one called the city, county or the school system about the arrival of the Somalis. We were just expected to cope with the challenge when they showed up on our doorstep.
And with the Somali culture being so different in respects to mannerisms and traditions, this failure to communicate caused an obvious clash of civilizations that has resulted in extremely ugly feelings from many people who live here.
Since no one was there to help the refugees become part of the community, they have instead kept to themselves, resulting in the Somalis being further alienated from their neighbors and mainstream American society.
What has happened in Shelbyville, and many other small communities, is that a large number of refugees will begin to migrate to towns that have the jobs which match their limited skill set.
But no organization like the TIRRC ever contacts these communities about the needs of these refugees unless they are directly settling there from overseas.
And because of the fact that nearly all of the Somalis who have moved to Shelbyville and other places are considered "secondary migrants," there is absolutely no support system in place when large numbers of them migrate into an area unexpectedly.
Witness what happened to Lewiston, Maine: Somalis that were resettled in Atlanta were worried about the high crime rate and the negative influence the culture was having on their children. So they got on the Internet to find a safe community and Lewiston fit the bill.
But the small mill town had just lost two major industries and there were no jobs to be had. Nevertheless, the community was expected to simply accept thousands of newcomers without the means to do so. Given the vast differences between the two cultures, the situation ended up causing an enormous amount of friction and resentment.
Organizations such as Catholic Charities and others must take into consideration that a great many towns are simply not capable nor willing to accept large numbers of third world refugees, no matter how interesting or vibrant their stateside supporters claim they are.
It would be a good idea to ask the people that actually live there how they feel about absorbing hundreds or even thousands of refugees into their community. But it is obvious this does not happen until well after they move in and the culture clashes and ugly feelings take root.
The one good thing about our series of stories about the Somalis is that has gotten people to start talking about the many problems and obstacles that our new neighbors, and our community, are facing.
At least it got the attention of this advocacy group and hopefully, it will attract others who can give these folks the help they need to become more integrated with modern society.
It's just a shame it took nearly four years, a series of news articles and the raw and frequently harsh expression of the community's feelings to finally get the process started.