When Marina Peshterianu moved from Ukraine to Chattanooga in 1993, she remembers being asked about her accent everywhere she went. Twenty-nine years later, people still ask, she says. And when she tells them where she's from, they still say, "Welcome to Chattanooga!"
Southern hospitality has remained steadfast, says Peshterianu, associate director of Bridge Refugee Services. But over the decades, she's watched the city change in other ways.
According to the 2020 census, in Hamilton County, the Latino population is up 80% from 2010, now comprising 7% of the total population. And between 2013 and 2017, the number of Chattanoogans born overseas jumped by more than 68% – making it the No. 1 city for the growth of foreign-born residents.
As the city becomes more diverse, local advocacy groups are launching new initiatives, designed to help neighbors learn about each other's culture.
In October 2021, for example, Jaime Dixon Kerns and her Brazilian-born daughter-in-law Kamila Macedo Hall launched Culture Chatt. Each month, the two organize a small festival in Red Bank's White Oak Park, featuring a different heritage – Asian, Latino or Middle Eastern, for example – and invite local artisans from each community to showcase their authentic food and wares.
They hope to help immigrants overcome social barriers that can prevent their visibility while providing access to community resources such as bilingual health care specialists, insurance companies and cellphone providers.
"We wanted to give the community an opportunity to authentically engage with each other, and also give [immigrants] an avenue to establish their home businesses," says Kerns, who was raised by a Cuban father in a Latino community in Florida.
Around 300 people attended their first event — people from almost every ZIP code in Hamilton County, says Kerns, who collected data from the attendees that day.
The first few months in a new country can be a big challenge, says Peshterianu, who works with refugees fleeing persecution from such countries as Bosnia, Congo, Columbia and beyond – which, she says, are different than immigrants, who are often pursuing economic opportunities.
"These people have to learn a lot about life in the U.S.," she says. Besides the basics – how to pay rent, use an ATM or enroll their children in school –"they deal with a lot of interesting cultural challenges."
Peshterianu remembers once receiving a call from a pregnant client, who was worried about the timing of a baby shower her new church had planned for her.
"But the baby hasn't come out yet," she explained, not understanding the American custom.
After two decades of advocacy, Peshterianu says she now sees her life's work gaining new support.
Social media is attracting a new generation of volunteers, who help with everything from shopping for groceries to teaching refugees how to drive. And in 2021, Mayor Tim Kelly announced plans to open an Office of New Americans with the goal of providing resources, opportunities and a greater sense of belonging for local immigrant and refugee communities.
Social infrastructure is just as important as physical infrastructure, says Daniela Peterson, senior advisor for community strategies at the Trust for Public Land in Chattanooga. The trust, she says, known for its role in projects such as Stringers Ridge and South Chickamauga Greenway, has long been an advocate for inclusion.
In 2020, her team collaborated with community organization East Lake Language Arts (ELLA), urban design firm StreetPlans and residents of a largely Guatemalan East Lake neighborhood to design asphalt art installations at the 34th and 37th street entrances to East Lake Park. With funding provided by Lyndhurst and Benwood foundations, in April 2021, they painted large orange, yellow and blue sunbursts set against pink and edged with Aztec-inspired images of frogs – an homage to traditional Guatemalan textiles, which often depict the animal.
The hope, says Peterson, is to foster a sense of belonging and ownership of the park.
"Our work is centered around community," Peterson says. "Parks are an entry point to the city. They help people explore, feel more comfortable in the streets and meet neighbors. It's an important step for democracy."
Recently, the trust joined Belonging Begins With Us campaign, a national partnership between the Ad Council and a broad coalition of organizations dedicated to promoting a more welcoming nation. When bridging communities, the goal is to find commonalities, says Peterson – like, for example, "all moms want pictures of their children."
Working alongside Bridge Refugee Services, in September, the trust hosted "pictures in the park" day, where refugees were invited to pose for a series of family portraits at Rivermont Park. More than just producing a quality photo – which were given to the families for free – the idea was to help these foreign-born residents explore new parks.
"One thing that was interesting to me," says Peshterianu, "was how many ladies came in their tribal dress." Despite many of them having long ago adopted an American style, "when they wanted to feel beautiful, they thought of their national clothes. For immigrants, it's always a question of what you keep and what you give up."
And America is a country of immigrants, she says. "They bring the beauty of their world view. That's what makes us great. We are a country of strong and resilient people. It is in our blood."
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