December 20, 2010
Hussein Duqow and his family, refugees from Somalia, kept to themselves during the holiday season before experiencing their first one in Nashville this year.
Overt discrimination in South Africa, where the Duqows lived in refugee camps, made them feel unwanted and unsafe.
"We were always being watched and asked what we were doing there," Duqow, 30, said. "It's not like that here. There is hospitality. It's great. In South Africa, we just stayed home during the holidays even though we knew the Christian traditions."
On Sunday, Duqow watched his children play as they were drawn to a Burmese Santa Claus who was taught the gift-giving man's favorite phrases before suiting up at the annual Catholic Charities holiday party.
For the Duqows and about 200 other refugees from six countries, it was their first holiday party in Nashville. The party was held in the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel, which donates the space and the food to the newcomers.
They sang hymns in their native languages, including Swahili, Burmese, Spanish and Nepali. They also sang some traditional Christmas songs.
"We wanted them to enjoy the holiday party, enjoy the time together and not see it as part of the usual tasks that have to be accomplished when new here," said Kellye Branson, Catholic Charities director of refugee services.
Middle Tennessee is home to a large population of resettled refugees. Recent waves of Somalis, Iraqis, Bhutanese and people from African nations have arrived in Nashville, escaping violence, including persecution of religion and politics.
Catholic Charities started resettling Cuban refugees in Nashville in 1962. Since then, the organization has served refugees from 19 countries. Catholic Charities provides housing, employment and other services after refugees get approved to resettle by the government.
"Traditionally, it takes a resettled family 120 days to be self-sufficient," Branson said. "It takes a little longer with the bad economy."
When the Duqows arrived, an apartment with donated furniture, a home-cooked meal and appointments to get them adjusted to their new lives were waiting.
"Everything is organized," Hussein Duqow said. "We had all these things here waiting for us. I already have a job. We had people at the airport waiting for us when we got to Nashville. We just wanted to move anywhere that was safe in the United States."
Before arriving in the U.S., people must get refugee status and apply for resettlement through a United Nations program. Then the U.S. conducts vigorous background checks before they are approved.
Catholic Charities picks them up at the airport and takes them to their furnished apartments. The process of assimilation begins in the first few months, with English classes, getting Social Security cards and finding a job.
After the holiday party, Mohammed Mudey and his family waited for a shuttle bus to take them home. Mudey, 35, and his family were living in a refugee camp in South Africa after fleeing from Somalia, and he is looking forward to celebrating the holidays again in his new country.
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