SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. – 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. Shelbyville is about an hour’s drive from Nashville, in the heart of the Bible Belt. Like many Americans, the citizens of Shelbyville knew little about Somalia other than the 1993 Black Hawk Down incident, in which 18 U.S. servicemen were killed while battling warlords and Islamic jihadists in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. 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.
Mosely won an award from the Associated Press for a series of articles he wrote for the paper about Shelbyville’s Somalis. “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. Tthey 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
“Their culture is totally alien to anything the residents are used to,” Mosely added. 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. “I’m not really sure whether that is because of experiences with the police in their country, or whether that’s just the way their culture is,” said Shelbyville’s Police Chief, Austin Swing. Shelbyville is home to about 17,000 people. The town’s Somali population is estimated to be between 400 and 1,000. Mosely says the Somalis have isolated themselves from the rest of the community. “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. “A lot of them face eviction. They put them in an apartment complex that costs $600 a month. They can’t get a job that gives them that much money,” Hassan explained. “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.” “The locals, mostly, when they see a few hundred people in their backyard with a different look, strangers, you know, of course they have the right to be concerned,” he added. “But I think if the local authorities and organizations like ours do a lot of outreach, I think we can bridge the gap.” So how did so many Somalis end up in rural Shelbyville? The answer can be complicated. The State Department helps resettle refugees from war-torn countries like Somalia in the United States.