Southside neighborhood melting pot of Chattanooga

Every day by 7 a.m. a group of Iraqi, Burundian and Guatemalan middle-schoolers waits for the bus at the corner of Mitchell Avenue and 17th Street.

After the bus picks up the half-dozen teens, a couple of Iraqi fathers linger a while longer to talk before each heads home.

Over the last year, the Southside has become more ethnically diverse. There are about a dozen nationalities represented in the small neighborhood ranging from the Congo to Germany and more than 80 in Hamilton County, according to the Ochs Center.

"When we first moved here in 2006, the neighborhood, at least then, was African-Americans and white," said Ellen Hays, a resident of the Fort Negley neighborhood. "Then we met a family from Guatemala that lived around the corner, and that started our understanding that there really was more diversity in the neighborhood than we were aware of."

Gulmira Musina, who arrived from Uzbekistan with her husband and children three months ago, has found a friend in a Lebanese neighbor. Both came as refugees and were resettled with the help of the local Bridge Refugees and Sponsorship Services.

A recent afternoon Mona Alkhodor sat with Mrs. Musina while she made gushnon, a doughy bread-with-meat recipe from Uzbekistan.

Although neither speaks English well -- one speaks Arabic, the other Uzbek-- the women spend a lot of time together.

"We do everything together," said Mrs. Alkhodor laughing, as she held Mrs. Musina's hand. Their activities range from shopping to taking the children to the park and cooking.

In the afternoons, most of the neighborhood children rush to the little neighborhood park, which features a couple of swings and a playing set.

"You put kids in the park and language doesn't matter, they figure it out," Mrs. Hays said.

Most of the children use the few English words they know, coupled with hand motions and their native language, to get their points across.

"Give me," they yell, trying to get the soccer ball.

Often Arabic, Uzbek or Kirundi can be heard through the streets as children and parents converse.

A couple of weeks ago the neighborhood had a potluck gathering at which residents shared traditional American dishes such as strawberry shortcake and chicken salad, as well as a German chocolate cake brought by a neighbor from Germany and an Uzbek pakhlava --a sweet pastry.

More than 60 neighbors spent more than three hours getting to know each other and explaining their dishes, Mrs. Hays said.

As Bahati Madelene walks down the street smelling the different spices from around the world -- usually with her 4-month-old baby strapped to her back with a colorful fabric -- she stops and asks her neighbors what they're cooking, she said in Swahili through an interpreter.

Her family came to Chattanooga three years ago because of civil conflicts in their native Burundi.

Eduardo Centurion, who left his native Paraguay at age 9, moved with his family to the neighborhood in 2007.

BY THE NUMBERS* 80: Estimated number of nationalities in Hamilton County* 12: Number of nationalities in Fort Negley* 10: Approximate number of languages spoken in the neighborhood.Sources: The Ochs Center, neighborhood residents

"I took my job at New City Fellowship Church after visiting Chattanooga for just one weekend. Their commitment to racial reconciliation was a big reason why I chose to move my family here from St. Louis," said Mr. Centurion, who lives in Fort Negley with his wife Joy, daughter Lulu, 4, and son Ezra, 16 months.

"It brings back the memories of trying to adjust to life in a completely new world when my parents moved to the U.S. in 1988," he said. "I am able to remember the joys and difficulties that I experienced as a kid trying to figure out my place in two contrasting cultures, (and) I look forward to helping my neighbors walk through this adventure of assimilation."

Hussain Ali Hussain said he enjoys that all of his neighbors are willing to lend a hand when needed.

His family of four, including his wife, their daughter Lulua, 14, and son AbdulRaheman, 13, arrived in Chattanooga from Syria about a month ago.

"One of the good things we have is that if our neighbors see us, they smile and it makes us feel better," his wife, Amira Alwan, said through an interpreter.

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