Wednesday, October 27, 2010
By Chris Casey
Somali refugee Haji Mohamud may not have understood much of what was said in the film “Welcome to Shelbyville” — he's working on his English — but he recognized a lot on the screen.
“I knew almost everybody from the movie,” he said through a translator. “Every week (in Shelbyville, Tenn.) I had an invitation to the (Christian) church on Saturdays and the mosque on Sundays.”
About 70 people of assorted ethnicities and ages attended the free screening of the documentary at the University of Northern Colorado last Thursday.
Mohamud worked at the Tyson Foods plant, which is prominently featured in the film, for 2-1⁄2 years before moving to Greeley in September 2008 to work at the JBS plant. He said he no longer works because of an injury he sustained on the job.
The film is like watching a Southern version of Greeley: agriculture sustains a steeped-in-Christian-values town until the centerpiece industry — Tyson in Shelbyville; ConAgra, Swift & Co., JBS USA in Greeley — discovers the profit-margin virtues of low-cost labor and, before you can say ground-chuck roast, the town's demographics shift seismically. The patterns shown in “Welcome to Shelbyville” reflect what's happened here: Latinos began arriving (albeit later than in Greeley) to fill chicken plant and other low-skill jobs. In recent years, Tyson has hired large numbers of Somali and, increasingly, Burmese refugees.
The film uses a seismic moment in the nation's history — the 2008 presidential election — to frame a narrative that's presented through residents' eyes. Both Shelbyville old-timers and the newcomers comment on the changes sweeping through the town of 20,000 people. One longtime resident notes that Shelbyville is “the buckle of the Bible belt,” and a few scenes later a Presbyterian minister tells his congregation the day after the election to brace for big changes coming.
“What does it mean to have that shift of power and control, and what does it mean in my life and how do I deal with that?” he says from the pulpit.
Questions such as those are addressed both head-on and indirectly as the film weaves through the town's mosaic — inside coffee shops, the newspaper office, hair salons, industrial plants, and the homes of natives and newcomers. Apprehension and distrust are palpable, except for moments in which the melting pot of cultures come together in a spirit of community. In one of the most eye-opening scenes, a cross-section of ethnicities show up at a Somali woman's home to share in a Somali meal. Laughter, conversation, dancing — and baby steps of mutual understanding — unfold in the kitchen and living room.
Likewise, the lecture room in Gunter Hall became a de-facto caucus on multiculturalism when the lights came up and the hosts — Realizing Our Community, a local nonprofit that promotes diversity, and the Denver-based Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning — moderated a discussion about the film and its themes.
An older white man said this about what's happening in Greeley-ville: “I don't think people are coming here to take over — they're bringing new energy into the place.”
A younger man said the film made him feel frustrated. “It's a country of immigrants, and at times it's almost like people take it for granted — (as if) it's mine and only mine,” he said.
Granted, the film with its tolerance-leaning message wasn't likely to attract residents who view the arrival of ethnic groups as detrimental, especially when the newcomers get jobs that could go to locals. Nobody during the discussion echoed the two Shelbyville natives who offered a shoe-on-the-other-foot scenario. If job-seeking Americans emigrated in large numbers to, say, Somalia and Mexico, the natives of those nations likely wouldn't be pleased, the Tennessee men predicted.
That may well be the case, but then those countries don't match, as the younger viewer said, America's rich history as a nation of immigrants.
As such, and as the global economy pushes people of all ethnicities into previously homogenous corners of the United States, films such as “Welcome to Shelbyville” and debates about who is helped and who is hurt by these demographic shifts will continue.
And that's good. It was intriguing to hear Asad Abdi, a leader in Greeley's Somali community, point out how it hasn't been easy to be a Muslim in America since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but that, in general, Somalis haven't experienced racism in Greeley. In the three years since Somalis began arriving here — there are now about 1,000 in town — they've felt safe and mostly welcomed, he said.
Greeley resident Joy Breuer said it's incumbent on newcomers to become educated about the United Stated and work full bore on assimilating here.
“We want people … who really want to become part of America,” she said.
Conversely, as noted in the film, more could be done by host communities and employers to help the refugees acclimate to their new homes half a world away.
Mimi Flatt, a Greeley resident who attended the film, recalled a ROC-organized meeting with Somali leaders, including Abdi, two years ago. The idea was to open channels of communication between the locals and the newcomers.
Flatt recalled that Abdi was a bit apprehensive about hugging a woman in public, since that is not an accepted practice in his culture.
“Now, when we see (Abdi) in Walmart or Kmart, we either hug him or shake his hand,” she said. “He's all right.”
Abdi smiled. He said the film likewise conveys the spirit of bridging cultures and finding commonalities. “We don't speak (the same) language, but we speak the human language,” he said.
Before Abdi and Mohamud strolled into the crisp fall night, Mohamud offered a final thought on the film about the Tennessee town where he first experienced life in the United States: “It's a very, very good thing — educating the people and creating a connection between the people back there.”
Chris Casey is the Business Editor and a columnist for the Tribune. Reach him at (970) 392-5623 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source: The Tribune