Refugees Are People: Six stories of refugees in Nashville (Jennifer Justus, Nashville Scene)

Posted 02/23/2017


The Monday after President Donald Trump signed the executive order commonly referred to as the "Muslim Ban," the office at a local refugee resettlement agency had the jittery atmosphere of a place running on fluorescent bulbs, caffeine and stress. It has stripped-down nonprofit decor - it doesn't need corporate slogans on the walls to motivate its inhabitants. On the wall hangs a white board charting the arrivals of refugees from places like the Congo, Iraq and Bhutan.

The caseworkers at the Nashville International Center for Empowerment receive flight information about two weeks before a refugee arrives. This sets off a scramble to find an affordable apartment or a place for the newcomer to stay with relatives. Caseworkers gather basic groceries and bedding - a faded maroon comforter from the donation room, for example - to get an apartment ready for a family who might have spent years living in a tent. Then they wait at the airport for families who may not speak English, ready to help them navigate a maze of paperwork and emotions that range from elation to fear, isolation and bewilderment. They assist the families through the tedium of obtaining government identification at the DMV, undergoing health exams, enrolling children in school and joining English classes.

"Our job is to get all that done within 90 days," says Chris Linthicum, a case manager. "The whole point of our program is to make them self-sufficient."

Refugees sign a promissory note to reimburse the government for travel expenses. Many of them arrive with next to nothing. Once in the country, they receive Refugee Cash Assistance, which lasts eight months with no extension. "That money is not enough usually to cover their rent," Linthicum says. So they also receive a onetime flat fee of $925 per person, and they're encouraged to find a job as quickly as possible. When they do find a job, the cash assistance decreases or halts altogether.

But that's just run-of-mill stress at the center. On the morning after the executive order, the team was also caught between hustling to prep for a handful of families arriving during the executive order's grace period - from countries that weren't on the banned list - while also facing unknowns for the families it currently serves.

"It's really just the lack of knowledge that scares them more than anything," says youth education coordinator Monica Silvera, who has young students with parents out of the country - and it wasn't clear whether the parents' green cards will allow re-entry. "It's a huge mess, and nobody knows what's happening."

According to the Tennessee Office for Refugees, 1,427 refugees settled in Nashville during fiscal year 2016. It's a just a wisp of the world's displaced people, considering the 65.3 million worldwide who the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says have been forced from their homes due to war, persecution or natural disaster. Less than 1 percent of all displaced people are settled to another country, and the United States takes about one-tenth of that 1 percent, says the center's director of development, Carre Coy.

Refugee vetting takes from one-and-a-half to three years, and the average wait time in a camp is about 10 years. Vetting involves clearance from the U.N. refugee agency, as well as biometric checks of fingerprints, multiple in-depth interviews by the Department of Homeland Security, and medical screenings and investigations by the National Counterterrorism Center and the FBI.

"I always tell people that if it were in a PowerPoint, you'd be asleep by the end," Silvera says, addressing the perception that unvetted persons could somehow make it through this maze of investigations. "People have no idea how intense that process is. You hear people say, ‘There's no way for us to know.' But if we don't know, they don't make it here. People get turned down for this status and resettlement all the time."

Silvera also addresses fears about people using refugee status to come here for the wrong reasons. "You don't dig a ditch with a teaspoon," she says. "You don't wait 15 years when you can turn around tomorrow and get a tourist visa and get here."

The Nashville International Center for Empowerment is one of two remaining refugee resettlement agencies in the city after World Relief announced last week it would close its Nashville office due to the Trump administration's reduction of refugee resettlements. Of the refugees coming to Nashville in 2016, NICE resettled 287, as compared to 501 by World Relief and 639 by Catholic Charities.

So after a refugee comes to Nashville, what happens next? As the process of refugee resettlement to the U.S. is being reviewed and contested on a national level, we spoke with refugees already living in Nashville. The six families profiled here come from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, representing religions including Muslim, Hindu and Pentecostal Christian. Some of them arrived several years ago; others have been on American soil for only two months. The group includes a former math teacher who runs a Bhutanese grocery and an engineer who worked for the U.S. military. We spoke with a 19-year-old worker at a Tyson chicken plant, a custodian at Saint Thomas Hospital and a consultant who helps refugees become business owners.

Despite these differences, our subjects have much in common. They all came to this country because they can no longer go home. And even though they brought few material possessions to the land of the free, they already carry with them a lifetime built on being brave.

• • • • •

Zuleika Abdi * Somalia

After spending 20 years in a Ugandan refugee camp, Zuleika Abdi, a single mother of five children, finally has a solid roof over her head.

She leaves her new apartment at 5:30 a.m. to catch the bus and get her children off to school before arriving at Saint Thomas Hospital, where she works as a housekeeper. She doesn't return until after 6 p.m., and she works every weekday, plus every other weekend. But ask her about her situation as she stands in front of an ornate sofa donated by a Christian church in an otherwise sparse room, and she'll throw her arms above her lime-colored hijab and flash a smile.

"It's my first job in America!" she says.

Abdi's family fled Somalia when she was 7. Those memories flash before her in fragments like a horror movie trailer - fire, bullets, blood. "It was very scary," she says. "I get nightmares sometimes."
Her mother, pregnant at the time, starved to death during their escape.

Her father is still back in Uganda at the refugee camp. Abdi says he was cleared to come to Tennessee to join Abdi and her sister, who both arrived in Tennessee in late 2016. But the process has been halted for now. "He's stressed and calls us every day, and we tell him we can't do anything about it," she says.

The vetting process for her family began when Abdi had just one child. Her eldest is now 9, and she gave birth to all five children in the camp. She divorced her husband, she says, due to choices he made that were irresponsible. She had to go to court to get custody of the children. "It was not easy," she says. "We didn't have a lot of medical [care]. If people in pregnancy died, they died."

Despite her previous challenges and current workload, Abdi practically dances with energy and optimism.

"Because of the freedom," she says, "women have more rights and good things in America than where I came from. We were told America has opportunity if you go the right way. If you go to school, life changes. And it's good for the children."

Abdi has six years of education, and she sent her kids to school at the refugee camp - but only intermittently, she says, because it wasn't safe. "I'm 32. But still, I want to go to school and learn and go for a career job and support my family."

In the refugee camp, Abdi worked as a volunteer interpreter for those hoping to be resettled, so she says she'd like to become a resettlement officer. "I want to take my help back there," she says, "however good ways I can."

• • • • •

Bhim Subedi * Bhutan

When Bhim Subedi arrived in the United States at age 26 from a refugee camp in Nepal, he had never laid eyes on a microwave, a freezer or a debit card reader.

From age 8, Subedi had spent his life in a bamboo structure with dirt floors and no electricity. His family, refugees from Bhutan, received a ration of about 8 pounds of rice for 15 days. "We used to go to school on empty stomach," he says, "and we can't focus to study. That was the hardest part of that time."

But these days, Subedi owns Mi Dulce Discount Beer and Tobacco off Nolensville Pike, and it's stocked with potato chips, 12-packs of Coca-Cola and traditional Bhutanese clothing. Next door his brother owns Central Market, a grocery that sells speckled beans, spiny gourds and canned products familiar to the Bhutanese, Nepalese and Burmese.

Though Subedi worked as a math teacher at the refugee camp in Nepal, he took work where he could find it here - first on a construction site. He later earned a nurse assistant certificate to help take care of the elderly.

"I can deal with any kind of job," he says.

After saving enough money, he teamed up with his two brothers to wade through the paperwork and regulations needed to open their businesses in 2013 and 2014. "The main thing was communication," he says. "Then understanding the procedures and rules and regulations. That was tough for us."

At the time, Nashville didn't have any Bhutanese businesses supporting the community. In addition to bringing in products that help newcomers feel at home, the brothers also help new Nashvillians open bank accounts, obtain stamps or use their debit cards - Subedi still remembers being laughed at when he tried to use the card reader at Walmart for the first time.

Though he recognizes how far he has come, Subedi has new worries.

"A few months ago, I used to be like, ‘This is great place to live.' But after Trump took over, I'm worried about it. I'm scared. Our country is not on the list [in the executive order], but I'm worried about if someone goes crazy."

Subedi has a green card, and he has been here nearly the five years necessary to apply for citizenship. But he has concerns for his parents, who help out in the stores.

Do they talk about leaving?

"No, it's not that easy," he says. "We don't have anywhere to go."

• • • • •

R.A. and A.A. * Syria

When R.A. and his wife A.A. heard the news about President Trump's executive order barring refugees from their native country of Syria, they didn't leave their Nashville apartment for days. Not to work. Not to English class. Not to Walmart, where they buy milk for their sons.

"I'm not afraid about myself," R.A. says, "but I'm afraid for my wife and kids." They asked the Scene not to identify them by their full names.

The couple fled violence in Syria when their oldest son was 2 months old, hoping for a better life in Jordan. Unwelcome and often confronted by strangers on the grounds of their apartment complex, the couple underwent vetting as refugees. They were given the option to move to Tennessee and arrived to what R.A. called the "country of freedom" in May 2016. But after Trump's executive order, they feel unsafe again.

"We are not terrorists," R.A. says in his native Arabic through a translator. "We are just human beings."

As the couple talks about their experiences, their son's toy police badge sits on the coffee table in their apartment. Now 5, he says he wants to be a police officer someday. He recently overheard his mother speaking to family back in the Middle East about her concerns of being uprooted again. "I don't want to leave, Mom," he told her. "This is my home."

When the family arrived in Nashville, the resettlement agency was experiencing a rare shortage of housing. So they spent their first few months staying with volunteers and employees from the Tennessee Foreign Language Institute - shuffling one month at a time to three different strangers' homes, one of which was owned by a Brentwood man in his 80s. R.A., who had knee surgery while living there after working a warehouse job at Under Armour, recovered on the man's sofa and communicated with his host "like a silent person with gestures."

But despite the circumstances, R.A. calls it "the best days in my whole life."

"They trusted us, and we trusted them, even though we didn't know each other," he says. "They opened their hearts to us and said, ‘Make yourself at home.' "

R.A. and A.A. say they understand the concerns over allowing refugees into the United States, but they emphasize that their dream is for all people to live in peace.

"The people who demonstrated two days ago," he says of protests on West End, "they love peace and people to live their normal life. They say, ‘We are not better than them. We are all equals.' I love these people. But other people? They don't want us."

• • • • •

Misbah Ullah Mahmood * Afghanistan

Misbah Ullah Mahmood barely remembers fleeing war as a young boy in his native country of Afghanistan. His family settled in a refugee camp in Pakistan, where he spent much of his life in tents and mud structures with no electricity. But despite these circumstances, he traveled outside the camp to nearby schools to earn a bachelor's degree in engineering and master's degrees in economics and international relations.

In 2008, while still in his 20s, Mahmood returned to Afghanistan to work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a project manager. For eight years, he helped create infrastructure for the Afghanistan National Police and conducted training through a U.S. military project to help women in Afghanistan "stand on their own and start looking for a job because that's far behind," he says.

But the work became increasingly dangerous, causing him to worry when driving outside the city of Kabul, even during daylight. Attending weddings and religious ceremonies had become stressful too.

Mahmood and his wife were given the opportunity to resettle in the United States just one month before President Trump signed the executive order on refugees. "At least I can have my family and children be safe here," he says.

He seems unfazed by the new challenges he must deal with.

"We had very limited resources - things that are normally the right of every person," he explains. "The hard times my family faced make me ready for any challenge."

While he searches for a job in his field, he also hopes his wife can continue building on her English skills so "she can understand and learn and be a successful woman." Meanwhile, he says the people of Nashville have helped his family start to feel at home. When they shopped at yard sales for furniture for their apartment, their new neighbors refused their money. "This is a thing we can do," they told him.

"Even though it might be a $10 thing," Mahmood says, "to me, that is worth more than $10,000. The love they showed us? This is everything."

• • • • •

Mohamed Shukri * Somalia

On an industrial-looking stretch of Murfreesboro Road, Horn Coffee, a Somali-owned shop with samosas and African tea, sits next to the Country Cafe, a meat-and-three offering meatloaf, mashed potatoes and Jell-O.

"It says a lot about Nashville," says Mohamed Shukri, a Somali refugee. In this corner of a city known for country music, it's Country Cafe that seems somewhat out of place. Tucked behind it you'll find Maringo, a Somali restaurant, next to an international market and clothing store. Using this stretch of road as an example, Shukri contends that refugees aren't taking jobs in America - they're creating them.

"The story goes along the whole corridor," he says. "I know small businesses like this from here to Briley Parkway bridge. New community members putting down roots and trying to revitalize and invest."

He adds that refugees often have the grit required to stick it out when opening a business. They're apt to work long hours with patience and resilience. If a business isn't yet doing well, they might take a second job in the meantime to see it through.

"No one chose to come here," Shukri says. "The conditions forced you out of your home country. No one leaves his home with a child on a boat or an airplane to come to uncertainty. When we come here, we are forced to take this place and open this small shop and do these things and work hard every day."

Shukri has a consulting business called Daban Group LLC, and a nonprofit to help refugees and immigrants start businesses, called the New American Development Center. He sits on the Metro Arts Commission, the Nashville Entrepreneur Center's diversity board and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition board of directors, and he's a founding member of the American Muslim Advisory Council.

But he hasn't always been a man in a pressed shirt carrying a leather day-planner. Shukri's family fled war-torn Somalia and resettled in Atlanta. After he graduated high school, the family came to Nashville to follow job opportunities. He calls himself an optimist, but some days Shukri says the pressures of the political climate have him feeling heat in multiple ways.

"I'm a Muslim, I'm a refugee. I'm also a black person. But what makes me hopeful is that people are speaking up. ... I know the best about Nashville, and I brag about Nashville."

For example, Shukri recalls the first moment he felt Nashville as home. During his sophomore year in college, the mosque he attended was vandalized. He left campus to see the damage, but by the time he arrived, neighbors, students and professors had shown up to help paint. Former Mayor Karl Dean called the act of vandalism unacceptable.

"This is home, and I have to work hard not just to prove myself, but to build it," Shukri says. "Also one of my goals from spending my boyhood in a refugee camp is the idea of letting empathy drive me - whatever space I can find to help other people as much as I can."

Part of that mission involves speaking with those who are afraid of refugees or Muslims.

"It's better if we see each other as equal," he says, "as fellow human beings and start from there.' "

• • • • •

Venantie Mukamusoni * The Congo

Venantie Mukamusoni, 66, moves slowly, the effects of a decades-old leg injury from a grenade. Fire from the explosion ripped through the tents at her refugee camp in 1996, killing two of her children. She escaped with two sons to another camp in north Rwanda before resettling in America in September of last year.

All told, Mukamusoni spent almost 20 years in camps struggling with her disability while also caring for her children and walking miles to gather firewood for cooking and fresh water. "It was very, very bad," her son says. It's part of the reason Mukamusoni calls any leftover food they might have today a miracle.
"It was a dream for me while living in the refugee camp to not have to worry about what you're going to eat for dinner," she says through a translator.

But now she worries and stays "on her knees praying" for family she had to leave behind at the camp. Though they had had been accepted into the resettlement pipeline, their future is uncertain. "Of course we're very concerned and very sad about it, because we might not have a chance to meet our children again."

Mukamusoni says she wants to work and make enough money to send her family to school. Though she is illiterate, she wants a better life for her children. Her son Ndagije Byiringiro, 19, attended school through the 10th grade in the refugee camp. He now works at Tyson Foods with hopes of going back to school through the Job Corps or earning a GED so that he can go to college.

"When I was in the refugee camp, I didn't have hope," he says. "Now I have a chance to work, make money and also go to school. I see a lot of opportunity."

"Refugees are people," he adds, "and if given the chance they can make a difference in the world. Now I have more chances to become who I wanted to be."


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