by Katie Stanton and Renee Green
Kasar Abdulla, Board Member at the YWCA of Nashville for three years, has been making a difference in her community for nearly two decades. Through her work with Welcoming America, Kasar helps immigrants and the new communities they are joining to find cross-cultural understanding and an appreciation for their new neighbors. In September, Kasar was honored by the White House as a Champion of Change, and we sat down with her for an interview about her work and her life in the United States.
Why were you honored as a Champion of Change?
I work with various sectors, such as business, faith, education, and government, to strengthen our community. The work that was recognized by the White House was a project called Welcoming Tennessee Initiative that I helped start in 2006, and in just a few years the project got replicated in 19 other states. As it got replicated, we decided to rename the initiative Welcoming America, to reflect the national growth. When the project started, I was working with Tennessee immigrants. Since the 1990s, 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 express unease and confusion, and even fear, resulting in additional obstacles for new arrivals to integrate.
As someone who went through the Refugee Resettlement Program, I recognized there was a huge gap between refugee resettlement and refugee adjustment. The Refugee Resettlement Program at that time was very narrow, in that they saw integration as a one-way street; we saw it as more of a two-way street. The first part is focusing on immigrants as newcomers, adapting to their new home. The second part is working with the receiving community and helping them understand the changing demographics coming into their neighborhoods. And being able to cope and communicate with people who look, sound and worship differently than they do.
How do you communicate and reach out to the receiving communities?
The biggest way is dialogue – anything from training to community events. We do various documentaries called Next Door Neighbors. These videos highlight the receiving communities’ new neighbors. So, we are utilizing media and the technology out there, as well as traditional forms of communication. A great example of this is Welcome to Shelbyville: in 1990, a huge influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants settled in this Tennessee town, followed by a large population of Somalis. There was a cultural clash between whites, African Americans, Hispanics and Somalis. In my opinion, this happened because there was a misunderstanding and misinformation about each other. Holding events and bringing people together, we’ve found, really helps get the conversation started.The best way we have found to do this is over traditional sit-down dinners. So, we hosted conversations over shared holiday meals to discuss the cultural differences they all had.
How does your personal story help you in your work?
I was born in Kurdistan, and at the age of 6, I was moved to a refugee camp. My whole childhood life was filled with struggles, and I began to question human behavior. I would ask myself: “What causes a human being to escalate to such violence? What am I doing here? Why can’t I go home?”
In 1992, my family was settled in Fargo, N.D. It was a dream come true, but we were nervous. We were excited because we had heard nothing but good things about America, the “land of opportunity.” So that part made me feel like I could be Muslim and Kurdish in America. I didn’t have to have fear because of my identity, in order for me to be active in the society. Once I was in the U.S., I recognized that the American constitution is very beautiful, but it is only a theory — not a practice. The U.S. is still facing internal struggles that we haven’t overcome yet, specifically cultural conflict and religious conflict. So my identities clashed. Being a female, a Muslim and an American was hard for me to come to terms with. “What does that really mean?” I would ask myself. It was challenging for me to live with these identities because my community did not see me as an American.
In 1996, we moved to Nashville. I was a freshman in high school. My parents were farmers, so they enjoyed the scenery of Nashville. And that’s what drew them to Nashville, in addition to the hospitality that the South embodies, and the more communal atmosphere. When I graduated from high school, 9/11 happened, and my dad wanted me to be either a doctor or a lawyer, something universal, because he didn’t know if we would have to flee our home again. But I had more of a passion for sociology and human behavior. I still had that internal fire and curiosity about human behavior from my childhood, and wanted to better understand how we establish ourselves in a society. [I wanted to know how we can] address the imperfections in our society and how can we change those imperfections towards a positive route.
Describe the other work you do, such as domestic violence awareness.
I am not an expert in the area, but more of an advocate. Since I have been with the YWCA, I have been working with them to help tailor some of their programs so that they are more culturally competent, because the demographics are changing. I am addressing domestic violence in diverse communities. One way I am doing that is through an organization I helped start called the American Muslim Advisory Council. We had our annual conference and I brought the YW in to discuss what domestic violence is, and what constitutes violence in general. Often, people in the Muslim community associate violence with bleeding and physical abuse, but violence is not just physical. Violence comes in many forms. So being able to show them how to recognize it, address it in a safe manner and showing them that the YWCA exists was very eye-opening for them. These communities are very different; for example, in undocumented communities, there is a fear to [seek] out resources or to seek assistance, because they don’t have the paperwork and could get deported. Being able to help the YWCA better reach out to these communities will help those in these situations.
Do you think there is a better way, nationally, that we could reach out to the undocumented community?
Absolutely, because there are legal programs and avenues that can help victims of domestic violence obtain the proper paperwork. One of the best ways to address this is having people from these communities come in and talk to the victims in their native languages, because language is often the largest barrier. Immigration is now being talked about at the national level, and one of the major issues within immigration is sex trafficking. Girls are being brought to the U.S. as sex slaves. When one thing happens to one woman, it happens to all of us. It affects men, it affects all of society. Not just the victim.
The best way to be seen as a reputable organization is to diversify your staff to reflect the demographic changes taking place in society.
Kasar speaking at the White House
If you could say one thing to young women leaders, what would you say?
Know who you are. Be thankful to God, or whoever your creator is. And know that what you are is God’s gift to you, and what you make of yourself is your gift to not only God but to the world. [Be] happy and pleased that God put your soul into the body of a female, and [know] what it means to be a female and see it as a blessing, and not to let it stand in your way as a struggle. See those challenges as an opportunity for strength, and every challenge you see and face will strengthen who you are as a human being.
Read more about Kasar’s work in her post on the White House Blog.
Kasar is currently the Director of Community Relations at Valor Collegiate Academy. She previously worked as the Director of Advocacy at the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. She serves on many boards, including the Nashville Public Library, the American Center for Outreach, YWCA Nashville, and the American Muslim Advisory Council.
The YWCA supports comprehensive immigration reform that protects women and their families. Ask your member of the House of Representatives to pass reform that protects and supports immigrant survivors of violence.