Tuesday September 15, 2020
By STEPHEN ELLIOTT
Office of New Americans’ Mohamed-Shukri Hassan has a long history in local advocacy work
Mohamed-Shukri Hassan / PHOTO: PATRICK SHEEHAN/TIRRC
Mohamed-Shukri Hassan has come a long way from delivering pizzas from a Pizza Hut on West End Avenue, and he’s come even further from his native Somalia.
Hassan’s family moved to the United States as refugees when he was a kid, and to Nashville in search of better jobs shortly after he graduated high school. Hassan began attending Nashville State Community College, and later Tennessee State University — from which he would graduate — launching a decade of service to other immigrants and refugees in the city.
That work culminated in his appointment last week by Mayor John Cooper as director of the Office of New Americans. In that role, Hassan will largely be focused on the city’s COVID-19 outreach to immigrant and refugee communities, which have been especially hard hit by the pandemic. One item on his résumé could prove particularly valuable in that work: He served as an outreach worker for Metro Public Health for more than two years while he was in school.
“I speak four different languages, so I was doing a lot of outreach back then to special populations, especially to immigrant mothers who were breastfeeding,” Hassan says, just a few days into his new job in the mayor’s office. “I have already had a call with the health department person in charge of the testing sites. Coming into this position, I’m well aware of the inequities and the needs of the community, especially in South Nashville.”
Hassan is already working on a plan to bolster the city’s coronavirus-related outreach in 11 different languages, including Spanish and Kurdish, and setting up satellite testing sites in different communities. Though COVID-19 and its outsized effect on immigrant populations will be his primary focus in the short term, another pressing matter will also be part of his purview: the census.
The decennial count is already well underway, but Nashville leaders, like their counterparts around the country, are scrambling to make sure as many residents as possible are included in the tally. An undercount could mean a decade of underfunding for schools, housing, transit and more. And due to language barriers and other issues, immigrant and refugee populations can be the hardest to count, putting their neighborhoods at even greater risk of losing out on resources.
“The next few weeks I’ll be focused initially on planning a big event in Southeast Nashville to have civic and religious and community groups help the city get the word out [about the census],” Hassan says. “Besides COVID, that will be another big chunk of work moving forward the next few weeks. I’ll be finding different strategies in how to communicate especially to new Americans.”
The new director does not think his work will include much response to federal immigration raids or fallout from Metro collaboration with federal authorities, as he says Metro has mostly done away with agreements with immigration authorities. He wants his work on that front to be more proactive than reactive to one-off emergency situations.
“Obviously as someone who came here as an immigrant, I understand the impact it can have,” he says.
Hassan is trying to take a more holistic approach to new American outreach. That means countering the perception that immigrants and refugees only live in Southeast Nashville rather than in pockets all across the county and region.
“We are a city made of neighbors, and everybody lives beside each other,” he says. “I’m honored to be serving the city I love and the community I love.”