If the pandemic has done anything, it has shown how easily a crisis like COVID-19 can decimate the vulnerable, and Nashville’s growing immigrant community has been no exception. Hispanics and immigrants continue to make up the largest percentage of COVID cases in the area and have had few resources to alleviate the crisis.
“I think COVID has been a beast that nobody has ever dealt with,” said Mohamed-Shukri Hassan, whom Mayor John Cooper recently named the director of Nashville’s Office of New Americans.
According to the Metro Department of Diversity and Inclusion, the number of foreign-born residents has more than doubled in the past decade, and nearly 12% of Nashville’s population was born outside the U.S. Many immigrants have only recently entered the country, making interim director Fabian Bedne’s task of finding a permanent director for the Office of New Americans even more critical.
Hassan takes on the task of engaging and empowering immigrants to participate in the government and local community. Having spent many years personally building a relationship with the immigrant community, Hassan, who became a citizen in 2009, knows there are many challenges he will face in the next few months.
He has had anything but an ordinary life. Born in Somalia, Hassan and his family sought refuge from the civil war ravaging his home country, and after moving from place to place in East Africa, Hassan’s family finally settled in Decatur, Georgia in the late ‘90s before moving to Nashville in 2006.
Hassan shares a similar story to many other immigrants seeking a better life. Life was far from stable, and as a teenager, having to learn a new language was just one of many barriers he faced. While his mother worked at Goodwill Industries, Hassan began working part-time jobs while enrolled at Nashville State Community College and Tennessee State University to earn a degree in political science.
Hassan said his natural curiosity is what prompted a career as an immigrant advocate. While in school, Hassan took a position as a security officer at the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugees Rights Coalition (TIRRC). That’s where Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, director of TIRRC, met him.
“He started to get involved in our community organizing, learning more about what we were doing,” said Sherman-Nikolaus.
While working at TIRRC, Hassan worked his way to becoming a staff member, then a board member and then the chair of the capital campaign raising money for TIRRC’s new building.
Having found his passion, Hassan began serving on boards advocating for immigrant rights. He founded and served as the executive director of the New American Development Center, a non-profit organization that helps immigrants learn entrepreneurial skills. Under former Mayor Karl Dean, Hassan helped launch MyCity Academy, a free program that educates new Americans to understand and participate in Nashville’s government. This program helped establish citizens who now serve as ambassadors to their community and often end up collaborating with Metro departments and facilities.
As a city with a recent boom in the immigrant population, Nashville has opportunities not many other cities have, said Hassan. With many established immigrant advocacy organizations there’s “no reason to reinvent the wheel.” Nashville has the resources to tackle difficult questions, such as police reform.
Metro Councilmember At-Large Zulfat Suara says she’s found Hassan is always passionate about looking for solutions to hard questions.
“I think he has the trust of the community. A lot of people know him and a lot of people love him,” said Suara.
For his first task at the Office of New Americans, Hassan said he “needs to really focus” on making sure the immigrant community is counted in the census. Nashville’s current data on the immigrant population is outdated, with self-reporting estimated at 64 percent. The immigrant population needs federal funding for the next decade, according to Hassan. For instance, access to technology is one barrier that Hassan is currently working on, and he plans to teach community leaders about non-technical ways to count their people.
In dealing with police reform, Hassan hopes to get immigrant community leaders to collaborate with police and city officials. He remembers an instance where a woman of Ethiopian descent was in distress, and Hassan worked with immigrant leaders to help MNPD identify her and “get her the help that [she] needs.” If a crime affects an immigrant, he wants to remove language barriers that prevent police from sufficiently investigating.
He has the trust of the community. A lot of people know him and a lot of people love him. – Councilmember At-Large Zulfat Suara
“I want us to be a part of the solution,” said Hassan, acknowledging that police reform is an issue that primarily affects immigrants.
For the upcoming winter, Hassan plans to make sure Metro government is “more equipped to address [COVID-19] and help this community.”
“Before COVID, everything has been reactionary,” said Hassan, adding that the experience means they have a chance to have a better strategy.
Communities need a voice or a way for advocates to better communicate the needs of the community, and as a refugee himself, Hassan “has a really deep understanding of the challenges that refugees and immigrants face,” said Sherman Nikolaus.
Hassan currently serves on the board of TIRRC’s sister organization, TIRRC Votes.
The immigrant community has proven their importance to the city as essential workers, and Hassan is “committed to helping Nashville to move forward,” said Suara, adding that Nashville needs somebody like him who has passion for the city.