Somalis, Shelbyville and Severe Culture Shock
An Interview with Brian Mosely
by Jerry Gordon (Feb. 2008)
Shelbyville, Tennessee is a rural community located in the middle part of the state. Four years ago, the character of this community was changed irrevocably when a major employer, Tyson Foods, hired several hundred Somali émigrés to replace illegal Hispanic meat packers at a facility there. The Somalis emigrated from other centers in the heartland of the US, after coming to America under a legal humanitarian immigration program established by the 1980 Refugee Act, controlled by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and by the US State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration with a budget of over $1 billion. In 2007, there were an estimated 70,000 plus Somali legal immigrants in the If you have enjoyed this article by Jerry Gordon and want to read more, please click here.
Major employers who require low skilled workers, like Tyson, took advantage of these changes. Tyson was prodded by Federal criminal cases brought against it by the US Department of Justice for hiring illegal aliens. The hiring of legal Somali immigrants was facilitated by Federal cash stipends and social assistance administered by state social services agencies with the contractual assistance of voluntary agencies like Catholic Charities, Lutheran Relief, Church World Services and others. Hence the presence of Somalis in
One of the few members of the Fourth Estate, who has covered the problem of assimilation of legal Somali humanitarian émigrés in the
In a series of hard hitting articles in the Shelbyville Times Gazette, Mosely has vividly portrayed the problems of what happens when hundreds of Somalis with a strong tribal culture and Muslim faith come to a small community in
In this interview with Mosely, we discuss the background that led to the Times Gazette Somali series, the reaction of the community to his reports and opinion pieces, comments by readers, and the attempt to muzzle his free speech rights under our Constitution. The Somali series that Mosely has produced will be submitted for some
Brian Mosely, we are pleased that you could join us for this interview.
Jerry Gordon: Tell us about your own background as a working journalist on a small town newspaper?
Brian Mosely: I have lived in this part of middle
Jerry Gordon: Give us some background on when and how the Somalis came to Shelbyville and under whose auspices?
Brian Mosely: That is an interesting question. Catholic Charities of Tennessee handles the resettlement of Somalis in Nashville, but no local official in Bedford County could tell me with any certainty when the refugees began arriving in this small community. According to figures we received from the Tennessee Department of Human Services (DHS), just a total of 13 refugees have directly settled in Bedford County from Somalia -- only two in 2005-06 and 11 in 2006-07. But these figures do not include secondary migrants, which are refugees who have relocated to Shelbyville after first settling somewhere else. DHS apparently does not have a mechanism in place to track such secondary migration and therefore, no one has a clear idea when they first came here. The Somalis could be resettling from the
Jerry Gordon: How large is the current Somali community in Shelbyville and where did they emigrate from here in the
Brian Mosely: That is also another interesting question. We have heard numbers ranging from 250 all the way to 1,100 from one county official, but there is no way to be sure. The Imam of the Muslim mosque told me the number was between 250 and 300, yet representatives from Tyson said that Somalis represented over one fourth of their current workforce of 1,100 in Shelbyville. The city manager told me the number was around 500. As far as we know, there has been no census count made of the Somali population.
As from where they are migrating, that is another mystery in itself. We had assumed that many Somalis had relocated from
In fact, the director of Catholic Charities for
Jerry Gordon: As Tyson figures prominently in the introduction of Somalis to Shelbyville, would you tell us what motivated the company to bring them to the community?
Brian Mosely: To say that Tyson brought them here would be somewhat inaccurate, yet the simple action of offering hundreds of job openings at the local chicken processing plant have certainly attracted the refugees in large numbers to our small community.
However, to understand this local labor need, you have to know a bit of history involving the company and the area. Over the past 10 to 15 years, the Hispanic population in
In 2001, the Tyson plant here in Shelbyville was one of several across the country that were caught up in a federal investigation alleging that executives and managers of Tyson were involved in a conspiracy to smuggle illegal aliens to their foods processing facilities.
Two local managers pled guilty, one took his own life and the rest were acquitted in federal court when the case finally came to trial. But it was soon after the Tyson trial that locals began to notice the Somalis moving into the area. Many living here, including some employed at the plant, have claimed that the company was replacing the Hispanics with Somalis, since they can guarantee they are in the country legally.
According to Tyson representatives, the case-ready meats plant in Goodlettsville, TN [near Nashville] had finished staffing their second shift and began telling applicants of other job opportunities in the company, which included positions here in Shelbyville. Tyson claims that the Somalis applied for employment through one of the area Job Service offices and learned about the jobs primarily through word-of-mouth.
Also, the head of Catholic Charities claims that while many employers contact them when they have openings for refugees, Tyson is not typically one of those.
Jerry Gordon: What State of
Brian Mosely: In Shelbyville, to our knowledge, there has been absolutely no help offered for these people from any state or volunteer agency. That was the most shocking thing I discovered in my research of this issue. After the refugees are directly settled into a city or town, such as they have been in
The money is used directly to pay for the refugees housing, utilities, food, etc. Catholic Charities also receive "nominal funding" to pay staff and other costs and the refugees receive a travel loan for their move here -- and they have six months before the first payment is due. DHS has also told us that the refugees are provided with employment, language, and case management services as a part of the resettlement process and they assist them in getting acclimated to their new surroundings, schools, housing, transportation, employers, medical care, etc.
But after a certain amount of time, something like four to six months, it’s up to the refugees to support themselves. And it appears that if the refugees decide to move elsewhere, which many of them do, they are totally without these support services.
For example, Catholic Charities told me that the DHS 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 refugee’s needs. But that is in
Jerry Gordon: In your Times Gazette series you have noted the difficulties that both the Somalis and the local community have experienced. Could you give us some examples?
Brian Mosely: There are so many difficulties; it’s hard to know where to begin. At the top of the list would have to be the attitude of the Somali refugees, which locals have consistently described as ‘rude and demanding’. This description comes from practically everyone who have encountered or interacted with them, from your average convenience store clerk all the way to law enforcement officers and other officials.
Given that this area of
For example, when asked about the ‘rude and arrogant’ behavior, the head of Catholic Charities said that ‘this is just the Western perception of the Somali culture.’ She claimed that since the Somalis have been refugees for so long, it is only through being rude and demanding that they have managed to get the little they have gotten to survive over the years in the camp." However, these types of explanations have not been well received here at all. I hear a lot of variations on the phrase, ‘when in
Then there is the issue of religion.
Just this week, one of our other reporters came back from an assignment and passed on a compliment of our series, stating that this unnamed businessman told him that “I don’t like those Muslims. I don’t trust them.” These statements came from a Hispanic immigrant.
Off the record comments from public service officials have been worrisome as well. Firefighters have told me that the Somalis refused to evacuate their apartment complex during a blaze and when they respond to alarm calls, [a frequent occurrence] the firemen are told to leave and that they are not welcome there. Law enforcement reports a similar ‘lack of respect’ for their authority and I have been told off the record that many officers are hesitant to even patrol after dark the apartment complex where the Somalis live.
Even the chief of the Shelbyville Police Department told us: "With the Hispanics, they're more humble and very glad for any help you give them ... very respectful. But with the Somalis, that's not the case. You owe it to them."
As for the school system, they have had to deal with various culture clashes. Apparently, the Somalis have difficulties with women in supervisory roles and nearly half of the principals in our schools are female. It has been reported to us that the refugees have no respect for these educators. Also, the Somalis have “unrealistic expectations" of what the school system provides. Apparently, someone had told the refugees that the schools furnish free child care and when the Somalis learned that wasn’t the case, they become very aggressive and demanding, insisting that the school system provide it.
The school superintendent told us: “This is
What has caused many of these problems is the apparent total lack of communication between the locals and the refugee community. As I said before, to our knowledge, there have been no official contacts between city or county government and the Somalis. This lack of interaction has resulted in the Somalis isolating themselves and being further alienated from their neighbors. The groups that helped them get resettled in this country are nowhere to be found. Had the Somalis stayed in
One prime example of this lack of interaction occurred a few weeks before we published the series. An official with the county’s emergency management agency called me asking how to get in touch with the Muslim Imam. They were undertaking avian flu preparedness and part of the plan involved coordination with faith based institutions. However, the authorities had no official contact within the Muslim community, not even a phone number or an outside person to contact on their behalf. He wasn’t sure exactly where the mosque was located either.
Soon after our story about the visit from the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) was published, this official used the information we provided to contact the Somali Community Center of Nashville to see if they could give the county a phone number or other contact information for the Imam. County officials tell me they want the doors of communication opened. Amazingly enough, the Somali Community Center of Nashville refused to do so, but stated that they would act as a go-between with county government and the Muslim community. However, there has been no other contact between the two parties at all. The official I spoke to seemed quite frustrated and said they have not returned his calls. He also stated that it appeared the Somalis wanted no contact or interaction with the rest of the community.
Jerry Gordon: In one of your early articles in the Somali series you discussed the plight of Bantus, a slave minority population in
Brian Mosely: We focused on the Bantu because Catholic Charities told us that the latest Somali newcomers to
Jerry Gordon: In
Brian Mosely: To our knowledge there has not, but this is a major concern which has been expressed by the public to me and other reporters here. Several Tyson employees called while I was working on the series to express their frustration in working with the Somalis. One worker at the plant made many comments about the personal hygiene of the Somali women that were totally unfit to discuss in a family newspaper.
The Tyson spokesman said that they require all newly hired workers to complete a post-offer health assessment, made up of a health history questionnaire that asks them about their medical background, including whether they have TB or been tested for the disease. Depending on their responses, the new workers are sometimes referred to a local medical provider or the county health department. Also, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Health said the rate of communicable illness here are no higher than in other areas of the state, also claiming that refugees entering the country are screened by health care professionals and the local offices are notified if there is a problem with anyone in the area.
The health department spokesman also told us that ‘nothing like TB or other diseases can be spread through casual exposure and that the public would be at a very low risk even if someone was infected.’
Jerry Gordon: Because Somalis come from both a strong tribal and Muslim background, they practice female genital mutilation (FGM). Have you found any evidence of such practices, barred by
Brian Mosely: This has been another frequent question asked by many our readers and one we did not address in our series. Frankly, it’s a topic not discussed in small town, family oriented newspapers like the Shelbyville Times-Gazette. There has been no evidence of it that has been reported to us; however, given the fact that 98 percent of Somalis do practice it, I find it highly unlikely that they have abandoned this hideous cultural tradition.
Jerry Gordon: You have noted alleged drug dealing in Khat, a US DEA Class I drug, and attendant gang problems cited by local law enforcement officials. Could you tell us about these and what the experiences of law enforcement officials have been?
Brian Mosely: Law enforcement have had two reported incidents involving Khat: In February 2006, a 21-year-old Somali was arrested after Shelbyville police found 11.26 grams of the plant and in November of the same year, a Somali man was sentenced to 10 years in prison as a result of a guilty plea in Circuit Court for having 2.4 pounds of the drug.
The administrator for the Sheriff Department told me ‘they are a hard people to deal with,’ and noted that Somalis have not adapted to American culture or laws, pointing out that officers would pull them over and "you tell them what they did was wrong, but they'll say they were right." It is the total lack of respect for the rules and law enforcement that have rubbed officers the wrong way.
As for gangs, it is something that is being seriously looked at by local law enforcement. The sheriff’s department has told us that they are finding a lot of gang related activity with the Somalis, supposedly imported from
Jerry Gordon: Why in your view has the adjustment problems of Somalis in Shelbyville been ‘more difficult’ than for example those in
Brian Mosely: I believe this is entirely due to the total lack of interaction between the Somalis and the rest of the people living here. At least in
Jerry Gordon: You have written about the experience of visiting the local Mosque in Shelbyville. We understand that in Tyson’s
Brian Mosely: The Imam was very polite and so was his son, who provided translation. This was the only contact we had with the Somali community after our many attempts and was only accomplished after I walked in the front door of the mosque and said hello. Unfortunately, the meeting was much shorter than I would have liked. Some questions were not answered.
As for Tyson, their spokesman said their company has done their best to "value and manage the cultural differences of the people we employ." The requests for religious accommodation are handled on a case-by-case basis and in addition to two, 30-minute breaks per shift, all of their employees are also given a seven-minute break, which the Somalis use for their prayer time.
The Shelbyville's facility also has three part-time chaplains who provide ‘ministry of care’ and support to employees, regardless of their religion. The language issues are being addressed with bilingual Somali employees ‘who spend part of their time on the job helping with translation.’ The spokesman also stated that the transition of the Somalis into their workforce has gone ‘relatively well’ and they conduct monthly communication meetings involving hourly employees, ‘which give workers the opportunity to raise questions or express concerns’, they say. However, judging from some of the calls I have gotten from the workers there, there is much room for improvement.
Jerry Gordon: You have been visited by a delegation from the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) following the publication of your Somali series. In a recent Op Ed you noted that they should have appeared on the scene ‘four years ago’ to assist in the absorption process. What is it that you think these immigrant advocacy groups and others in
Brian Mosely: These groups need to stop focusing solely on the refugees in
Jerry Gordon: In an Op Ed at the conclusion of the Somali series, you expressed the view that the Somalis have been ungrateful for local community assistance. What is this based on? Can anything be done to change the Somali attitude?
Brian Mosely: We have been told that the Somalis have an extreme sense of entitlement in their dealings with the general public. A number of store owners have told us that the refugees become angry if they are not allowed to haggle on the price of an item. In my view, the Somalis must be given a much greater adjustment period and more education and briefing on what is considered proper behavior in
Jerry Gordon: Given your Somali series and knowledge about absorption difficulties of Somalis and other humanitarian refugee problems in the
Brian Mosely: 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.
I took a lot of criticism for one of my Op Ed's which stated that 'if this was Star Trek, this action would be considered a major violation of the Prime Directive’. I used this example from popular culture to explain what exactly we have been doing to these people in the hopes of ‘helping’ them. 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.
The Cultural Orientation Resource Center stated that the Bantu, who are the one being relocated here, have had very little exposure to western housing, conveniences or food, and things we take for granted such as electricity, flush toilets, telephones, and kitchen and laundry appliances are totally alien to most of them. They also say that resettlement professionals will have to deal with significant health care, sanitation, and social support issues relating to small children and mothers, pointing out that the Bantu use pit latrines and 'are unfamiliar with typical American bathroom facilities and common sanitation items such as diapers and feminine care products.'
I was raised in the Lutheran church and we would ‘adopt’ individual families to help them adjust to their new lives in
Jerry Gordon: Approximately, how many comments have you received on the Somali series and how varied have they been?
Brian Mosely: The comments have numbered in the hundreds and are as varied as our community is. A great many of the local comments simply confirmed what we were reporting. One reader had lived in the apartment complex which the Somalis eventually ‘took over’ and his observations were stunning:
“They had no respect for neighbors and bad odors would come from their apartment into the halls and then into other peoples apartments. They also would hit other people's vehicles and then claim they didn't do it and also would get confrontational with other people and try and start arguments and fights. They would also run in and out all times of the night while yelling in the hallways and outside. My friends got to the point where they were afraid to come over. They totally brought the standard of living down at the apartment complex and it was a nice little place before that. I got tired of it after a while and moved into a house. They would be warned of the rules there but would continually break them and they didn't care . . . they thought they were above that and treated the rest of the residents as though they were the outsiders.”
Unfortunately, we still have some bigots in the area and their hateful screeds were made part of the comments on our website. We banned one fellow for constantly posting links to Klan websites. We then began to get many messages from outside the community, some from
Many with Islamic names wrote to tell me what a terrible person I am - racist, wicked and bigoted. I should not be allowed to write such things, some said.
However, out of the hundreds of comments and e-mails received about the Somali series, very few, if any, took issue with the actual facts we presented. Instead, I took a lot of criticism from people who feel I do not have the right to express an opinion on matters I report on.
One critic who took issue with one of my Op Eds tracked down a personal blog I had not used in nearly two years and said the opinions I expressed there were proof that I was biased against Islam. 'Biased' is just a clever way of calling someone a racist. However, the post in question dealt with the Festival of Ashura, where many Muslims flagellate themselves with chains and blades and even slice up the foreheads of pre-schoolers as part of the religious event.
Regardless of their faith, I refuse to believe that anyone would consider mass child abuse as acceptable behavior. Using my criticism of those who take knives to their children as proof that this writer has ‘made his views on Muslims clear’ is dishonest at best.
Jerry Gordon: You have published an Op Ed in support of, Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, author of “Funding Evil”. Her book was about
Brian Mosely: This sort of behavior fosters an incredible chilling effect on free speech. Unfortunately, far too many journalists today live in constant fear from a visit from one of the many Committees of the Perpetually Offended, who believe that any opinion that differs from their own is iron clad proof of bigotry and racism. These groups usually demand ‘apologies’ from their targets, and woe to those who fail to bow to their superior moral wisdom. As a result, topics such as the mass relocation of refugees are never addressed in full and neither are other equally important topics such as what Dr. Ehrenfeld has researched. It is even worse when a well funded group can use foreign courts to silence authors for printing the truth. There has been very little coverage of Dr. Ehrenfeld’s ordeal with the mainstream media. You would think that reporters would be lining up to help the Doctor out, since they are also likely targets of these suits. It makes you wonder how many editors or publishers out there have chosen not to report certain stories due to this type of fear.
Brian Mosely thank you for responding to this interview. Best of luck on your submissions in both the Tennessee Press Association and AP awards competition.
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