The only outside investor the town has attracted in recent years bought the abandoned supermarket in the centre of town. Hassan Nasser arrived in the US from Yemen seven years ago determined to become a businessman. He was 26 and barely had a dollar to his name. He trained as a lorry driver in Detroit, got a job with a long-distance haulage firm and slept in his vehicle to save his earnings.
“I came from a small town in Yemen. It was pretty much like being here. Mississippi is based on farms all around owned by white folks and black people do the work. That’s the same as Yemen. There are a few who own everything and the rest work for them,” he said. “Compared to other parts of the US, I’d say this place is 20-50 years behind in everything. Like Yemen. But we don’t have an obesity problem in Yemen.”
Low-income, isolated communities without supermarkets are often forced to rely on high-priced convenience stores for basics such as milk and bread. “They had nothing here at all when we came,” said Nasser. “They had only two gas stations with convenience stores. They were taking advantage of people. They had very high prices.”
Nasser said he was often mistaken for a Mexican and called amigo. Then he mentioned that when he first arrived in Tchula he told people his name was José because he was worried that his origins and religion might be held against him. They weren’t.
“There is really no racism here against us,” he said. “People here are good except some of the young ones. They broke into my store the second week of opening. They took tobacco and stuff so I installed bars and bought insurance.”
Patterson is grateful that Nasser reopened the supermarket. “It was a disappointment that nobody from here tried to open it but, to be honest with you, we were thankful. I’m thankful that he came because nobody else seemed like they wanted to. It was closed for a long time,” she said.
But the supermarket only provides a handful of jobs. Patterson’s vision is something grander: Tchula as a manufacturing hub attracting factories providing stable if not particularly well-paid work, likethe clothing firm and sawmill used to do.
I found the story of Hassan Nasser to be particularly uplifting in these days when all sorts of politicians and their sycophantic media backers are raising the alarm about Muslim refugees. Here's a guy from Yemen who finds his way to America, lives in his truck to save money for the down-payment on this bankrupt grocery in a town in Mississippi, and the next thing you know he's a success story featured on a major European news platform!
The American Dream lives!