Co-written by Meira Yasin and Heval Kelli
The current political climate around the confederacy and civil war has created a label of prejudice and racism of the South. It is dividing the country and more negative stories are portrayed about our region. When many people think of the South, they imagine confederate flags, KKK marches, and extreme conservative Christians holding the bibles in people’s faces. However, many of us immigrants and refugees starting our lives in the South have found the true meaning of being American, among the people here who are loving and welcoming. The South created a beloved community for many.
Our story of a female Muslim of immigrant parents from Palestine growing up in Tennessee and a male Muslim Syrian refugee resettled in Georgia takes you on the journey of defining America and the American Dream in the South where people on the outside presume there may be prejudice toward people like us.
Our journey was shaped by experiencing the Southern hospitality that transcended religion, race and economical status. Heval Kelli’s family arrived to Georgia two weeks after 9/11. They remained in their home for 2 days due the fear of being attacked as a Kurd. Everything changed when eight White men and women were knocking on their front door. They were members of a local Christian church that came to welcome a Muslim family to their new home. Heval and his brother were mentored by Americans and protected by them to pave their journey to become a cardiologist and a surgeon investing in their communities.
Meira Yasin’s family immigrated to the USA from Palestine and have been here for nearly 40 years. She had a unique experience living in the South and identifying as the child of immigrants, but also as an American. Meira was born in Georgia, not far from the Clarkston community, which is so filled with the beautiful diversity that refugees bring. Her family settled in Tennessee in the late 80s, and the beautiful mountains of East Tennessee have since become home. Everyone she encountered throughout her childhood and those who encouraged her along her education in her journey to become a nurse have colored her view of the South as a place filled with love and hope despite it all. Her Southern community supported her in her dreams to pursue higher education as a female Muslim. Now, she educates future nurses as a nursing professor in the university and gives back to the community by providing healthcare to underserved populations.
After reading about the work Heval is doing with the refugee community in Georgia, thanks to the power of social media, Heval and Meira started talking about their mutual work with refugees and found that they shared a lot in common. Although their stories and life situations were different growing up, they realized that their love of this country and helping people are a reflection of their Southern values. They found commonality in their love of the communities they live in and serve in the South, and they share similar values as Americans and Middle Easterners. Although the South can be seen as an area that has many conservative people who are portrayed by the media as close-minded, there are more good people whose stories remain untold, who use their voices for good and helping humanity move forward.
Most recently, on a beautiful Saturday evening in September, the Refugee Coffee Company in Clarkston held an event called Speak Refuge, in which people of all nationalities and religious and backgrounds came together for a night of sharing stories, coffee, dancing, and connecting on the deepest human level. Heval came up with the idea to get the refugee children to draw cards for the families who were affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. The guests at the event filled out the cards with messages of love, hope, and solidarity for the families who lost their homes due to the hurricanes. It was heart-warming to be a part of this, and to see this diverse community in the south be home to so many people from around the world who otherwise would not have had the opportunity for a new beginning in life.
In our little community in the Tri-Cities in Tennessee, humans of different religions and backgrounds and walks of life have come together to form the Be a Good Human Tri-Cities. These wonderful people have made great efforts to make people feel welcome and supported, even inviting those who were affected by Hurricane Irma to find a safe place to stay in their homes here in Tennessee. They were also there in support of Meira’s journey to serve refugees in Greece on a medical mission, even though they have never met any refugees personally in our small town. They have raised money and collected children’s books for the refugee camp school, and have even written cards from the families in the area to the refugee families in Greece. People like this truly give meaning to the term southern hospitality.
Despite all the chaos of the world, despite many countries that still have wars and create divisions between people, we are blessed to live in a place that allows people like us to find common ground and come together for the greater good. There is much more that connects us than what divides us. The South enforced the hospitality and love for service that our Middle Eastern culture and roots share. The South has nurtured our beloved community, with the people who make this place home.