MARYVILLE, Tenn. — East Tennessee can be a home for many people seeking freedom and a higher quality of life. Maryville College held an immigration forum called "Refugees and Asylum Seekers in East Tennessee Today" on Thursday evening at the college.
It was a free event aiming to strip away political rhetoric and put conversation about refugees and immigration into a historical and humanitarian context.
Yassin Terou grew up in Damascus, Syria, before escaping in 2011 as the country collapsed into civil war. He was invited as a guest speaker to discuss his experiences as a refugee in East Tennessee.
After being granted an asylum visa, he came to Knoxville and attempted to navigate the complexities of living in a foreign country while learning the language and connecting with a community at the Annoor Mosque in Knoxville. He began selling falafel to friends who fell in love with his cooking, and when one offered to help him open a restaurant, he turned it into a place renowned for both food and positivity.
Terou now owns Yassin's Falafel House in Knoxville and keeps the restaurant's message close to his heart as he continues to fight for acceptance and equality.
"I'm a very proud Muslim. I'm a very proud Syrian and I'm a very proud American," Terou said.
He said East Tennessee has made him feel welcome since his arrival 6 years ago and hopes to help others learn how to understand what refugees go through.
History professor Dr. Douglas Sofer said Terou's story is important for the community to hear, and that it could help others feel like they can welcome refugees if faced with the opportunity.
"There are people who are displaced around the world right now who are in fear for their lives and they have to leave their homes. This is a place where we take home very seriously, in East Tennessee," Sofer said.
Sofer has taken the initiative to open the conversation among, not only students but also the Maryville Community as a whole, welcoming all those who are interested in the topic to join the conversation.
"A lot of people who been interested in the question, 'What happens to people when they're displaced from a war zone?'" Sofer said.
Sofer says he's proud to see a community eager to learn how to be inclusive and welcoming to immigrants.
"How can we help these people who are in these desperate circumstances? That's a really big part of what this is all about," Sofer said.
Immigrants and refugees, he said, are more than just a statistic.
"History and statistics and law, all of those things matter but what really matters the most, in my opinion, is what this means on a human level," Sofer said.
A local organization called Welcoming Immigrant Neighbors-Blount County (WIN-BC) also stepped up to help spread awareness of the services it offers to these populations.
"We try to help local immigrants who have language barriers. We do a variety of things, education and some direct service," said Sherry Brewer, a WIN-BC organizer. "We just recognized immigration is one of those issues that is very complex at the national level but there are local stories, that we have neighbors who have stories that we need to know and that as people who live here, we can still be engaged in the whole conversation about immigration."
The Maryville College community also welcomes all undergraduate applicants regardless of citizenship status. The school said undocumented students, with or without Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, who apply to Maryville College are treated equally to any other U.S. citizen or permanent resident. To learn more about these resources, click here.