Kasar S. Abdullah is being honored as a Champion of Change for working tirelessly to effectively integrate immigrants civically, linguistically, and socially into the fabric of their neighborhoods.
Since the 1990’s, Nashville has become a new destination for many immigrants and refugees like myself. As cities and towns experience a demographic shift, some long-time residents have expressed unease and confusion, even fear, resulting in additional obstacles for new arrivals to integrate. In 2006, a group of concerned Tennesseans from different walks of life—business, faith, education, and government—came together for the purpose of intentionally building communities that are more welcoming for new arrivals. The Welcoming Tennessee Initiative is a project run by the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC), which is founded on the notion that immigrant integration is a two-way process: as immigrants become more engaged and active citizens, members of receiving communities expand their own sense of identity to make room for their newest neighbors.
I have addressed the unique social conflicts facing our community for many years, and my own story reflects the struggles of many New Americans to integrate. I fled my ancestral home of Kurdistan at the age of six in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s attacks, and spent my childhood in a refugee camp in Turkey. Living in the U.S. as an American Muslim leaves me little choice but to engage others in dialogue about global migration and the rising tensions of religious conflict in my new home. Every day, I am more motivated to find ways for New Americans to fully integrate into the civic life of the broader community, and for receiving community members to better understand why people leave the land of their birth and travel to places like Tennessee. I gain my strength from my faith, my two amazing little girls, a compassionate husband, and the wonderful Tennesseans who strive to know their neighbors and are eager to build strong, integrated communities.
While immigration is not new to Tennessee, each new arrival brings her own unique immigration story. Through my years of leadership and service with TIRRC, I’ve worked with receiving community members to address issues related to immigration and faith through public dialogues, over shared holiday meals from Thanksgiving to Ramadan to Seder, and sometimes by a discussion over some good iced tea. I personally believe that if the human mind continues to be unengaged and remains in a state of ignorance, ignorance has the potential to lead to fear, and fear too often leads to hate. Once hate infiltrates a society, it paralyzes the mind and heart, resulting in the escalation of unbearable social conflicts and violence, as we have witnessed in cultural and religious clashes in Tennessee from burnings of mosques to deportations of families.
Welcoming Tennessee attempts to redress some of the complex issues faced by immigrants in Tennessee, dealing directly with the tensions between US-born Americans and new Americans of every ethnicity, including, but not limited to, Kurdish, Hispanic, Laotian, Ethiopian, and Somali. I firmly believe that a vigorous democracy is defined by the participation of its entire citizenry, working collectively with diverse opinions, to affect the processes that impact our everyday lives. In order for this to happen, our communities must prioritize integration, and recognize it as the foundation of a strong community.
Having had to go through the immigration system myself, I understand the obstacles of integration, the struggles of maintaining an identity, and the imperfections of our immigration system. In addition, I understand well the deep gap between refugee resettlement and adjustment. Today, I’m proud that the successful efforts in Tennessee have led to amazing work that is being replicated all over the US. My hope is that one day the United States will take the lead on integration in our diverse global society.
Kasar S. Abdulla, Former Director of Welcoming Tennessee Initiative (a project of the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition)