It has been nearly 20 years since Somalia last had a functioning government. Islamic jihadists now control most of the country-and sharia is the law of the land. Tens of thousands of Somali refugees have resettled in America in recent years to escape the chaos of their homeland, which is located in the Horn of Africa.
But the transition isn’t going smoothly in one small town.
At first glance, Shelbyville is your typical sleepy southern hamlet. It’s nestled in middle Tennessee, where the walking horse is king.
There’s Main St., the local sheriff, a movie theatre. It’s all very “Mayberry,” except for one big difference: the recent arrival of hundreds of Somali Muslims.
Small Town Having Difficulties
So when hundreds of Somalis began turning up in the town–many of them dressed in traditional Islamic garb–locals quickly took notice.
“They’ve had an impact here. Unfortunately, it’s not been a good impact,” said Brian Mosely, a reporter for the local Shelbyville Times-Gazette.
“I found that there was just an enormous culture clash going on here,” he said. “The Somalis were–according to a lot of the people I talked to here–were being very, very rude, inconsiderate, very demanding. They would go into stores and haggle over prices. They would also demand to see a male salesperson, would not deal with women in stores”
Different People, Different Culture
The problems extend to local schools–where some Somali students won’t talk to female administrators. There have also been issues with local law enforcement.
Shelbyville is home to about 17,000 people. The town’s Somali population is estimated to be between 400 and 1,000.
“We’re talking about people who have not had any experience with Western civilization,” he explained. “They don’t know the language. Things like running water are a miracle to some of these folks . . . you don’t take people from a totally alien culture, put them into a community, and then say ‘alright, you must get along.’
Little Chance to Adapt
Abdirizak Hassan is the director of the Somali Community Center in nearby Nashville. He says the state of Tennessee has no programs to help immigrants integrate into their new surroundings.
“They come, and the only thing they can do is go to work, and then after work they go back to the apartment,” Hassan said. “They’re totally isolated and there’s no interaction between them and the locals.”
He added that some have even expressed a desire to return to Somalia.
“And sometimes you have families, like, a single mother with eight kids, or seven kids or six kids, and you expect her to go to work in six months time with no English, no driver’s skills, nothing? I mean, sometimes it’s impossible.”
So how did so many Somalis end up in rural Shelbyville? The answer can be complicated.
Taken in by the U.S.
The State Department helps resettle refugees from war-torn countries like Somalia in the United States. The resettlement project is one part of a taxpayer-funded refugee aid program with a billion dollar budget.
Immigrants are chosen from UN refugee camps. The selected refugees then undergo a few days of cultural orientation and are soon on their way to America.
Pierce said the resettlement program helps improve America’s image in the eyes of the world.
A Rocky Transition?
More than 150,000 Somalis now live in the U.S., most in larger cities like Minneapolis, Nashville, Boston, Seattle and Columbus, Ohio.
Gang activity has been a major concern. And according to the U.S. government, at least a dozen young Somali Americans have returned home in recent months to join an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group called al-Shabab.
Motivated by Jobs
“Our experience has been that refugees are very successful at resettling,” said Holly Johnson of the Tennessee Office of Refugees.
Johnson said the federal government contracts with social welfare groups at the local level to help set the refugees up in apartments, find them jobs and ease their transition to America.
After a few months in their settlement cities, the refugees are free to move around the country and live wherever they please.
Somalis in other cities were drawn to Shelbyville by the jobs offered at the local Tyson chicken processing plant.
The plant came under fire from the Department of Justice in 2001 for hiring illegal Hispanic immigrants.
Getting Past Controversy
Despite locals’ continued complaints over its hiring practices, Tyson says it is doing things by the book. A Tyson spokesman said the company is following federal employment guidelines–and that the majority of its employees are local residents.
The Tyson plant generated national controversy last fall when it dropped Labor Day as a paid holiday in favor of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr.
The decision was later reversed, but longtime local residents say the incident was symbolic of the larger changes taking place in Shelbyville–changes they are coping with as best they can.
“We’re probably as culturally diversified as any small town in America.” said Chief Swing. “There’s been a lot of changes. But I think most people just take it in stride and keep going along with it.”