(T-G Photo by Brian Mosely)
Mohamad Ali and Hawo Siyad both told the documentary makers that around 150 Somalis were evicted from Davis Estates last year after one of the units in the complex was found to be infested with bedbugs.
Director/producer Kim Snyder and her crew from Chicago returned to Shelbyville Sunday to shoot footage for a documentary focusing on the impact that immigration and refugees are having on the community.
Snyder works with the BeCause Foundation, which has previously done documentaries on the homeless. Officials with the Foundation feel the topic of immigration and how towns like Shelbyville grapple with it is a big issue.
Also in attendance were local activist Luci Taylor and Catalina Nieto, public awareness coordinator for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC). The meeting was held at the home of Ali on East Depot Street, where a traditional Somali dinner was served.
Hawo said she lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for 12 years before coming to the United States, first moving to Columbus, Ohio. But within six months of her arrival, the lack of work there led her to the hills of southern Tennessee to work at the local Tyson plant.
Mohamad has been in America for a longer amount of time, about seven years, and he is recognized as an up-and-coming-leader for his community. He also works at Tyson.
However, her experience in Shelbyville, as well as Mohamad's, was marred by the bedbug-related evictions.
Hawo said that an Somali infant was found to have suffered numerous bites from the parasite and the mother did not know the cause. Doctors told the refugee mother to report the cause to the owners of the apartment.
"When she did, they did nothing about it," Taylor said. When the mother returned a second time to alert the property owners, 150 of the refugees were told to pack their things and move out, Taylor said.
"They evicted anybody that spoke out," Taylor claims.
A meeting was called in March of last year, Taylor explained, involving county mayor Eugene Ray, city manager Ed Craig and Emergency Management Agency director Scott Johnson to learn what could be done and where the refugees would go.
All the refugees were given eviction notices and Taylor was shown the notices at the Adult Learning Center, in which the Somalis were given 30 days to find another place to live.
The refugees missed a whole week of school and several days of work at Tyson as they tried to find a new roof over their heads, Taylor said, and the Somalis dispersed all throughout Shelbyville.
Both Hawo and Mohamad also claim that men representing the apartment owners would conduct late night inspections of the units, showing up unannounced with flashlights and frightening the refugees.
Taylor explained this action was very upsetting to some of the Somalis, given their experiences in their home country, where there is no government to speak of and roving bands of militants frequently have their way with the people.
It was especially upsetting to the women, Taylor said, who would sleep with little or no clothes and then have to deal with strange men suddenly entering the apartments, shining the flashlights around. Taylor was told that this practice is still going on with the remaining Somali residents and wants to know how to get it stopped.
Taylor said that the Somalis were "never allowed to have contact with the manager, they were always being handled by a security man or somebody that worked at the office. They wanted to talk to the manager, but instead they got evicted."
Nieto said that the matter was investigated by the Tennessee Human Rights Commission, who found no wrongdoing on the part of the apartment owners.
Taylor said she later heard that once the apartment was cleaned out, "within 24 hours, that apartment was rented out to an American."
The 43-year-old Hawo has six children, many of whom are scattered around the country in different Somali communities, such as those in Seattle and parts of Minnesota. The kids visit from time to time and Hawo hopes they will move here some day. One of Hawo's daughters lives with her, as well as one of the woman's sisters.
Hawo learned English from Taylor at Shelbyville's Adult Learning Center and is hoping to get her GED at some point in the future. She was also a nurse and a teacher back in Africa and also hopes to continue that job her once she is ready.
The Somali refugee says she loves Tennessee and calls our state "very beautiful."
"I have a job, I have a school. I like it," Hawo said. "This is my state now. I don't go anywhere. I have many friends who are American in Shelbyville."