"Welcome to Shelbyville"

Posted by Kristin Haworth
May 27, 2011
Panel Discussion at Screening of Welcome to Shelbyville Film

The Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), in cooperation with the Independent Television Service (ITVS), presented the documentary film Welcome to Shelbyville at the State Department on May 25, with over 120 invited guests from the NGO community, refugee resettlement agencies, the State Department, and other U.S. government agencies in attendance.

The film explores the experience of the small town of Shelbyville, Tennessee, which is undergoing dramatic demographic changes. For decades the town was inhabited largely by white and African-American residents, but within the last decade it became host to an influx of Hispanics, and most recently, hundreds of Somali refugees, attracted by job opportunities at the town's Tyson chicken processing plant. Set against the backdrop of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential victory, the town of Shelbyville grapples with cultural misunderstandings and mistrust of the Somali refugees. But as the film goes on, it's inspiring to see residents from very different walks of life come together to better understand Shelbyville's newest residents, and eventually take steps to welcome them.

PRM plays a role in resettling refugees from all over the world here in America, providing grants to local resettlement agencies to help newly-arrived refugees get situated in their new homes -- from meeting the refugees at the airport, to making sure they know what school their child attends, and how to locate a doctor. After this brief initial period of 30 to 90 days, the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) ensures the refugees are provided with the longer-term services they might require in order to become self-sufficient as quickly as possible.

Host communities also play an important role in this process. The arrival of refugees can of course present challenges for the host communities and for refugees as they struggle to find their place and adapt to a new world. But as Welcome to Shelbyville illustrates, one of the most powerful tools for successful integration is a helping hand (or hands) from the local community.

One of the defining moments of the film is when retired school teacher Marilyn Massengale stands up for Somali refugees at a community meeting, drawing parallels between the difficulties she faced as an African American growing up in the segregated South to the challenges for acceptance the Somalis are now facing.

After the film, Assistant Secretary Eric Schwartz spoke about what he has learned from his many trips to local communities, how we can continue to improve the U.S. resettlement program, and the opportunities for transformation not only for refugees, but for entire American communities, as witnessed in the film. He then moderated a panel discussion and a question and answer session with four guests: Ken Tota, Deputy Director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement at HHS; Kim Snyder, director and producer of the documentary; Abdishakur Mohamed, a Somali refugee working as an employment coach for refugees at Catholic Charities in Nashville, and Ms. Massengale herself, who is now a "Welcoming Tennessee" activist, working to make newly-arrived refugees feel more welcome in their new communities.

Response to the film was extremely positive, and many thoughtful questions and comments were raised. Ms. Massengale, however, nearly stole the show, wooing the audience with her passionate speech on equality carried forward from the era of segregation, and breaking into song to encourage us all to join hands and make this world a better place.

As Beverly, another resident of the town, says in the film, "As far as America being America -- it's a stronger America. People are gonna…be their brother's keeper. And if you can't help somebody, what's the point in living?"Welcome to Shelbyville airs this week on PBS; check your local listings. It's also being streamed for free through May 31st on PBS's website.

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