As Chattanooga’s demographics change, new local initiatives are helping neighbors learn about the cultures of others

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 are still asking, she said. And when she tells them where she’s from, they always say, “Welcome to Chattanooga!”

Southern hospitality has remained unwavering, says Peshterianu, associate director of Bridge Refugee Services. But over the decades, she’s seen the city change in another way.

According to the 2020 census, in Hamilton County, the Latin American population increased by 80% from 2010, now accounting for 7% of the total population. And between 2013 and 2017, the number of foreign-born Chattanoogans jumped by more than 68%, making it the No.1 city for the growth of foreign-born residents.

As the city diversifies, 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 his Brazilian-born stepdaughter Kamila Macedo Hall launched Culture Chatt. Each month, the two host a small festival in Red Bank’s White Oak Park, showcasing a different heritage – Asian, Latin, or Middle Eastern, for example – and invite local artisans from each community to present their food and theirs. genuine products.

They hope to help immigrants overcome social barriers that may prevent their visibility while giving them access to community resources such as bilingual health specialists, insurance companies and cell phone providers.

“We wanted to give the community the opportunity to authentically engage with each other, and also to give [immigrants] one avenue to establish their home businesses, ”says Kerns, who was raised by a Cuban father in a Latin community in Florida.

About 300 people attended their first event – people from almost every postcode in Hamilton County, said Kerns, who collected data from attendees that day.

Photo contribution by Brooke Green Bragger / Two cousins ​​pay a colorful tribute to their Guatemalan homeland through their dresses during their portrait session in Rivermont Park.

The first few months in a new country can be a big challenge, says Peshterianu, who works with refugees fleeing persecution from countries like Bosnia, Congo, Colombia and beyond – who she says are different from immigrants. , who often pursue economic research. Opportunities.

“These people need to learn a lot about life in the United States,” she says. Besides the basics – how to pay the rent, use an ATM, or enroll their children in school – “they face a lot of interesting cultural challenges.”

Peshterianu recalls receiving a call from a pregnant client, who was concerned about the timing of a baby shower that 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, helping with everything from shopping for groceries to learning to drive refugees. And in 2021, Mayor Tim Kelly announced plans to open a New Americans office with the goal of providing resources, opportunities and a greater sense of belonging to 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 a long history of advocating for inclusion.

In 2020, his team collaborated with community organization East Lake Language Arts (ELLA), urban design firm StreetPlans, and residents of a predominantly Guatemalan neighborhood in East Lake to design asphalt art installations at the entrances to the 34th and 37th Street in East Lake Park. With funding provided by the Lyndhurst and Benwood Foundations, in April 2021, they painted large orange, yellow and blue sunbeams on a pink background and edged with Aztec-inspired frog images – a tribute to traditional Guatemalan textiles, which often represent the animal.

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Photo provided by John Dooley / An aerial view of painted asphalt art at the entrances to 34th and 37th Street in East Lake Park, designed, in part, to pay homage to the neighborhood’s large population of Guatemalan families .

The hope, says Peterson, is to foster a sense of belonging and ownership of the park.

“Our work is community-driven,” says Peterson. “Parks are a point of entry into the city. They help people explore, feel more comfortable on the streets, and meet neighbors. It is an important step for democracy.

Recently, the trust joined the 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 you bring communities together, the goal is to find commonalities, says Peterson – like, for example, “all moms want photos of their kids.”

In collaboration with Bridge Refugee Services, in September, the trust organized a ‘photos in the park’ day, where refugees were invited to pose for a series of family portraits in Rivermont Park. More than producing a quality photo – which was given free to families – the idea was to help these foreign-born residents explore new parks.

“One thing I was interested in,” said Peshterianu, “was the number of ladies who came in tribal attire.” Although many of them have long adopted an American style, “when they wanted to look beautiful, they thought of their national clothes. For immigrants, it’s always a question of what to keep and what to wear. ‘we give up “.

And America is a land of immigrants, she said. “They bring the beauty of their worldview. That’s what makes us strong. We’re a country of strong and resilient people. It’s in our blood.”

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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Fatima Aldarwish, of Iraqi descent, right, serves authentic Iraqi food to a customer during the monthly Culture Chatt festival in White Oak Park.

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