Nashville sets the U.S. bar for welcoming immigrants
The Tennessee city, world famous for its music scene, has become a magnet for newcomers
The smells of freshly-baked conchas, pastries in the shape of a sea shell dusted with sugar, waft out of the La Hacienda market. Inside, piñatas hang from the ceiling, and the shelves are lined with groceries from Mexico.
The small family-operated store and adjacent restaurant literally give a flavour of the vibrant immigrant community that is thriving in Nashville — yes, Nashville, that one-time bastion of the South that made a crucial decision six years ago to open itself, literally, to new tongues.
World famous for its country-music industry — a huge tourist draw — Nashville is also attracting a burgeoning immigrant population. In fact it is one of the fastest growing in the entire U.S.
Nashville's population of foreign-born residents has spiked to 12 per cent of the population, about double what it was just 10 years ago.
In Nashville's schools today, a third of students live in homes where English isn't the first language.
The medley of immigrants is most visible on Nolensville Pike in south Nashville, far from the honky-tonk bars downtown. It's where Jose Ochoa's La Hacienda restaurant and other immigrant-owned businesses line the thoroughfare and where you can easily find people with stories to tell about their arrivals in Nashville.
"We're proud that we have both nationalities," Ochoa says. "We feel proud of our culture and we feel proud of being American too."
Crucial referendum in 2009
The Kurdish population got its start in the city in the early 1990s, when Kurds, fleeing violence under the Iraqi regime, came through refugee resettlement programs.
Hispanics and others, meanwhile, came largely for jobs in the construction and hospitality sectors. Though Nashville's booming car-making industry — the biggest in the U.S. with Nissan, Volkswagen and GM plants — is a huge magnet as well. There is also a large health-care industry.
The newcomers found a city with jobs, a good cost of living, and a nice climate. They told their friends and family to join them. The population kept growing.
The changing face of Nashville isn't the only story though, it's how this southern city has adapted to it that's getting national attention.
In fact, Nashville is where President Barack Obama flew in December, shortly after announcing his executive action on immigration reform, to hold up Nashville as a beacon of how immigrants can benefit a city.
He had lunch at La Hacienda, and Ochoa called it a thrill to meet the president.
Nashville brands itself as one of America's most welcoming cities, but had residents made a different choice during a referendum in 2009, it could have been known as something else.
"It was definitely a turning point," says Tara Lentz, the program director at Conexión Américas, a non-profit organization that helps Latinos.
The referendum asked: should English be the one and only language of the city government, no translations allowed? Those against the idea said it was anti-immigrant and would tarnish the city's reputation. They breathed a sigh of relief when a majority voted No.
"Nashville made a decision to become a welcoming city at that point," said Lentz. "It would be crazy now in 2015 to think about Nashville having that kind of referendum — which is great to be able to say six years later."
Diversity equals success
A lot of work was done in the last six years to ensure that immigrants not only feel welcome, but are integrated. People who work in immigrant services give credit to Mayor Karl Dean, who has overseen a host of new initiatives to help new arrivals navigate the school system, government services and community centres that offer English lessons.
In a recent interview in his office, Dean said the referendum was a "moment of clarity" about what direction the city was going to go in, and that Nashvillians chose to embrace diversity rather than reject it.
He said he's personally put so much effort into integrating immigrants because, "It's just the right thing to do."
"I do think that great cities, cities that do well, are going to be diverse cities," Dean says. "Those are the cities that are going to have the energy, the exchange of ideas, different people working together."
The mayor acknowledged that not everyone agrees with his approach but he thinks there is a solid consensus that Nashville wants to "make people feel like they belong here."
So, do they?
"No problems at all, everything was very good, very smooth," said Kamal Hasan, who came to Nashville in 2000 to join the growing Kurdish community, and now owns a grocery store selling food from around the world.
Another Kurd, Nawzad Hawrami, said he calls Nashville "the town of immigrants" because it is so welcoming. "I think Nashville is a good role model for immigrants," Hawrami said at the Salahadeen Centre mosque where he is the office manager.
Karla Ruíz, who came from Mexico City in 1999, said making a new life in a new country can be like a roller coaster. "You're almost there and then you go down, it's hard," she says.
It was tough at first, she says, when her son came home from school crying because he didn't speak English. But the family persevered, and her son has now just finished college.
Ruiz, who runs a catering business, is a graduate of Conexión Américas's small business training program, which helps entrepreneurial immigrants get their ideas off the ground.
Conexión Américas is based at Casa Azafrán, an impressive building on Nolensville Pike where multiple non-profit groups provide health services, English lessons, legal and financial advice.
As Ruíz and others interviewed indicated, not everything is perfect in Nashville, but, it's better than other parts of the state.
"There is so much xenophobia in rural communities in parts of Tennessee, so when I compare Nashville to the rest of the state, it's an oasis for our immigrant neighbours," explained Wade Munday, executive director of Justice For Our Neighbours, one of the non-profit groups housed at Casa Azafrán.
"But there are many challenges that they face even here in the city."
Mohamed Shukri Hassan, a 28-year-old entrepreneur who sits on Mayor Dean's advisory council, came to Nashville as a teenager from Somalia. Immigrants still face discrimination, he said, and a perception that they are a strain on government resources.
"There's not a whole lot you can do other than building those bridges and proving that we, as new Americans and immigrant refugees, we come here to add our story, our contributions, our struggles, to America's story," he said during an interview in his office.
There are also concerns that the progress may be slowed, or even reversed this fall when Mayor Dean steps down.
"That is one of the biggest concerns on activists' minds," says Hassan. "Will the story of Nashville keep going? Or will we have change?"
The story, as they say, is to be continued.