Catholic Charities, Diocese of Nashville was chartered in 1962 in order to help 43 Cuban children who were sent to Nashville and who were part of a total cohort of 14,000 evacuated to the U.S. as part of Operation Pedro Pan during the communist takeover of Cuba. Over its 61 years, CC has partnered with the city of Nashville and its citizens to welcome the stranger. Our agency has professional employees of different nationalities and many religious backgrounds—not just Catholic—who want to help and give back for all the good they have received from the Nashville community. Many of those professionals are former immigration and refugee clients, now citizens of the United States.
Catholic Charities Diocese of Nashville, in 2022, had the opportunity to facilitate a reunion between three of our very first clients—a trio of school-age brothers from Cuba—with the original host family. We made a documentary about their experiences, When Pedro Pan Came to Nashville.
Recently we rented a local historic theatre for a screening, which was followed by a panel discussion by academic and community experts to speak to the issue of “otherness.” We invited the public as well as our donors. By engaging the academic, arts, and international communities, we made a step outside our usual circles. Our agency—with its 60 years of experience and expertise—has the ambition (and an obligation, we believe) to forge a stronger effort towards advocacy and education on this topic. This event was a start, Nashville has a corridor that has become home to many of foreign birth. Nashville’s hub-and-spoke roadway system (not a grid) includes Nolensville Pike and Murfreesboro Pile. Downtown is a vibrant tourist destination, but just a few miles away are bustling international communities. The businesses downtown are ground zero for the hospitality industry, which benefits greatly by employing immigrants.
Nolensville Pike is especially well known for the businesses and restaurants which reflect Nashville’s rich international culture. For more than 20 years, the family-run La Hacienda restaurant dominated that corridor. So renown was it for its authentic food and atmosphere, that President Barack Obama chose it for a quick meal while visiting Nashville in 2014.
President Obama was in Nashville that day to advocate for immigration reform and to address recent pushback that the international community had experienced over several years. One legislative proposal that was defeated was an English-language-only bill for government offices. The President’s speech was given at nearby Casa Azafran, home to Conexion Americas. For 20 years it has served as a beacon and a place to come together for dozens of foreign-born groups who have settled nearby. Catholic Charities has an office there, as one of their many partners.
In September 2021, the Metropolitan Nashville mayor’s office established the Welcoming Nashville Fund, seeded by money from United Way and The Frist Foundation. The money raised through this collaborative effort provided supplemental funds, mostly used for housing, which was the greatest challenge for arriving Afghans.
At the end of one year of helping the Afghans settle in Nashville, the most urgent work of the Welcoming Nashville group was mostly done—but the synergy and fellowship between Catholic Charities and other nonprofits, and civic groups were so powerful, we agreed to stay together and rename our effort the Welcoming Nashville Coalition, with the intent to be a permanent resource for Nashville. The group included even a member of Metro Council, Zulfat Suara, herself an immigrant and a co-founder of the local Muslim advocacy nonprofit AMAC (American Muslim Advisory Council). The Tennessee Immigrants and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) is also a member.