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Sunday, May 1, 2016

OPINION: Where do we go from here?

Saturday, February 2, 2008

This is the text of the speech staff writer Brian Mosely gave during an appearance Thursday at Shelbyville Rotary Club.

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak to you today. This is truly an honor.

About six months ago, I was approached by a local official with a proposal to write a series of stories about the population of Somalis that have been moving to Shelbyville over the past few years.

He told me that a lot of misunderstandings and ugly feelings were beginning to take root in regards to the Muslim refugees, who came to Shelbyville to work at the Tyson Foods facility. Many of the difficulties appeared to be caused by the behavior of the Somalis in their contacts with the general public, which were frequently described as rude and demanding. It was hoped that opening communication would help both the Somalis and the community in the long run.

However, while we were eager to open a dialog with the refugees, they became silent and refused to return our calls through these official channels. In the meantime, I began to hear many of the rumors, stories, and opinions about our new neighbors from the public and what I was told was quite disturbing. While the introduction of the Hispanic community to Bedford County over the past decade or so had resulted some strains and culture clashes, it was nothing compared to what was happening with the Somalis.

So I set out to write the series in hopes of educating the public about our latest arrivals. This proved to be extremely difficult due to the fact the refugees had ignored our repeated inquiries. Despite this handicap, I was able to learn a great deal about the Somalis --what they had escaped from, how they came here, the various cultural and religious differences and the challenges they faced in our country.

I also spoke to many members of the community who were interacting with the refugees, who told me of their experiences and difficulties. We went to press with the series of stories on Christmas week.

To say it provoked a reaction would be an extreme understatement.

Our web site was soon filled with hundreds of comments about the Somalis, and many of them were not favorable. In fact, quite a few of them exposed an undercurrent of fear and distrust of the Islamic refugees ... even hate. I was also called a bigot by Muslims from outside the community. One local critic even accused me of fiendishly manipulating my readers, hoping that that my articles would inspire someone to commit a hate crime against the refugees.


But regardless of the passions my series of stories raised, it did accomplish one thing. It started a discussion about our new neighbors and what can be done to help them become a part of the community. The Times-Gazette have already been paid a visit from the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, who want to help out the Somalis. I'm also given to understand that a similar effort is currently underway here in the county as well.

But, as I said in a recent op-ed column, where were these offers of help four years ago when the refugees began to move to our community?

They didn't come from the charitable organizations who settled them here. After a certain amount of time, the refugees are left basically on their own. The state and federal government seemed to be of no help when the task of educating the refugee children fell to our school system. While Tyson brought in experts to help with the integration of the Somalis to their workforce, this education was not extended to the community at large. To our knowledge, Shelbyville was pretty much left on their own to cope with the introduction of the newcomers to the area.

In fact, 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 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 it just isn't the Somalis who are suddenly moving to small town America. Over the next year or so, refugees from countries such as Burma, Burundi, Bhutan, Bangladesh and even Iraq will be coming to our country, in all about 70,000 new faces. First they will be resettled in major cities like Nashville, which has become a Mecca for refugees, but it is likely that they will spread out to the smaller towns and communities to find work. Will some of them come here? Who can say?

Currently, estimates from the United Nations state there are over 13 million refugees in the world. Less than one percent of that number will ever be resettled in a third country. But those who are selected for resettlement in the United States are expected to become economically self-sufficient in just a matter of months.

In 2006, such humanitarian refugee assistance and support was funded at a level of over $500 million. According to information from the Office of Refuges Resettlement last fiscal year, 7,500 Somalis entered this country out of a total of 17,000 such refugees allotted to Africa. The aggregate total of Somali refugees as of 2005 was close to 70,000. Given figures for both 2006 and 2007, the current total may be approximately 90,000.

For the few Somalis who do make it here, the process is long and complicated, likely beginning in a refugee camp across the border in Kenya. A person would first have to be granted refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, meeting the criteria of having a well-founded fear of persecution in his or her homeland.

Once selected for resettlement in the United States, a person has to be reviewed and approved by the Department of Homeland Security. Refugees approved for resettlement receive cash assistance and free housing for a number of months. But after that, the refugees are on their own to earn enough to pay for rent and other expenses. Eventually, every refugee must pay back the U.S. government for the money spent on their travel to America.

A recent article in a Colorado newspaper stated that Somali refugees dream of jobs in meat packing in this country. According to one expert on resettlement, many refugees arrive with a utopian image of life in the United States and very high expectations. But while working $10 an hour jobs in this industry appears to some refugees as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the reality for them is much different

Most of the refugee's work experience has been that of a sheep herder or a similar profession. Very few of them have what we would consider modern job skills. And while many refugees truly desire to become self sufficient, the reality is that a great number of them have trouble adjusting to life in 21st Century America.

But even if refugees find the coveted meat packing jobs, changes can come suddenly. Just last week, Tyson Foods announced they were reducing the workforce of their Emporia, Kansas plant by nearly 1,500 of their 2,400 employees. Out of that total number are about 400 Somalis. While Tyson says that affected workers would continue to be paid and receive benefits for 60 days, they are also offering the affected workers a chance to consider transferring to other Tyson locations. The company said that it would offer cash relocation incentives for qualified workers.

Will that relocation include the facility here in Shelbyville? Who knows? But due to the restructuring, the Somali refugees have once again become nomads.

There are many services that the refugees need that are not being provided. For example, an article in this week's Tennessean says that a $150,000 annual federal grant for providing mental health services for refugees was cut. They reported that five percent of the refugees resettled in nations such as the United States suffer from severe depression, and 10 percent suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. But since the concept of treating mental health disorders doesn't exist in their countries, many refugees many not know that they need help, or that it is even available. This program was available in Nashville, but such services for refugees appear to be non-existent in small communities like Shelbyville.

In all my research, one dilemma I noted was the lack of help at the local level for refugees. For example, Catholic Charities, the organization that resettles the Somalis, said that the Department of Human Services office and schools in Nashville "are always prepared for them" and they coordinate with DHS, the schools, local health care clinics, and the Social Security office to meet the Somali's needs.

But that's in Nashville. However, as far as these charitable groups providing any support or services in Shelbyville, that simply has not happened here at all. The community has just had to deal with the many challenges on their own. The refugees are going to go where the jobs are and if they can't find them in the big city, they are going to keep showing up unannounced in other small towns and strain local services.

The refugee resettlement program as it currently exists is in desperate need of reform, from top to bottom. In my opinion, it appears to have become more of a business than anything else. Advocacy groups need to stop focusing solely on the refugees in Nashville and other large cities and spread out to the small towns such as Shelbyville to see how they can help. Apparently, once the refugees move from the major cities and become secondary migrants, they are largely forgotten.

After spending a generation living in a camp being taken care of by the United Nations, these refugees are simply dropped into America following a very short adjustment period. Most of them haven't a clue how to get by day to day in America. Without the proper preparation overseas for what to expect in the West, refugees of all nationalities find themselves in an alien land with little to no support structure to fall back on.

Bringing tens of thousands of third world refugees into this country without the proper social and cultural preparation along with a lengthy adjustment period is, in my view, flat out immoral. According to the briefing material given to the very groups who are resettling the Somalis in this country, the refugees are totally unfamiliar with western society. They are hundreds of years behind the times in many respects.

In my opinion, we need to take in fewer refugees and make sure those we bring here are much better prepared for life in America before they even get on the plane. If they choose to stay here, they must be thoroughly educated on our culture.

I was raised in the Lutheran church and we would "adopt" individual families to help them adjust to their new lives in America. In the 1970's, our church brought in a family of Vietnamese "boat people." My family even hosted an Ethiopian family in our home from a similar type of refugee situation that the Somalis came from. Helping the refugees adapt to America family by family seemed to work out quite well. In my view, the practice of bringing over large masses of lost souls in order to fill federal quotas and allowing them to freely roam about the country with little means of supporting themselves and no idea how to function in modern society is not the way to give them a new life.

But whatever our feelings and opinions may be about the Somalis, they are here. They are a part of our community now and we can not pretend they are invisible any longer. Efforts must be made at the local level to make contact with the refugees and begin to talk about how to solve the many difficulties they face in becoming more a part of the Bedford County community.

This effort of communication also must work both ways. Practicing moral and culture relativism when dealing with the Somalis will not help them to adjust to our society. Just because something is allowed in their land does not make it permissible in the rural American South. This is our home and our new neighbors must realize that some of their behaviors and traditions are simply unacceptable to Americans.

Many have told me it can not be done. That the religious and cultural gaps are too vast to be crossed. That the Muslims will refuse to assimilate. That they do not want to become integrated with their neighbors.

We will never know unless we try. Thank you very much.

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