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No huddled masses here. Today’s immigrants and refugees are using their strength to help rebuild Dayton with help of the city’s Welcome Dayton initiative.
When Islam Shakhbandarov first stepped onto American soil, he clutched his chest and gasped for breath. The air in Atlanta that September night in 2005 was so hot and thick with moisture it had to be gulped into his lungs.
“I took one step off the plane and I almost lost my breath,” he says, his dark eyes falling out of focus as he recalls his introduction to a new life. “I thought, ‘How am I going to survive here?’”
But there was something else on the breeze that evening besides the heat and humidity. The smell of fear. After deplaning, Shakhbandarov entered the sprawling Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and found himself awash in a sea of humanity that ebbed and flowed and broke over him like waves on a beach. There were thousands of people, strangers, dressed in clothes he didn’t recognize, speaking a language he didn’t understand and casually ignoring one another and the din that enveloped them.
It was nothing like Uzbekistan, where he was born, or Russia, from where he and his family had fled.
“I got scared,” says Shakhbandarov, a soft-spoken 29-year-old with the good looks of a young Al Pacino. “I thought, ‘I’m going to get lost in all this.’”
But he didn’t, and seven years later he finds himself in Dayton, a city that has spread its arms to welcome not only him and the Ahiska Turkish-American community to which he belongs but also immigrants from all over the world.
Welcome Dayton: Immigrant Friendly City Initiative is a community program to let foreign-born people know that there is no place better to live, work and grow families than the Miami Valley area of southwest Ohio. More a set of broad guidelines than anything else, Welcome Dayton is the city’s commitment to help immigrants integrate into the community. To that end, it has hired a program manager and invested funds — perhaps as much as $200,000 over the next several years — to support local organizations in forming policies and practices to implement the plan.
Birthed and nurtured in no small measure with help from the University of Dayton, the strategy seems to be working. Though the immigrant population constitutes slightly less than 4 percent of Dayton’s total population, it’s growing and, more importantly, thriving.
You can look no further than Shakhbandarov and the Ahiska (pronounced hiss-ka) Turkish immigrants.
“It’s a community that has exploded,” says Theo Majka, a professor of sociology at UD and co-author of the Dayton Refugee Community Assessment study, which was researched and written to complement and assist the implementation of Welcome Dayton.
Majka has researched during the past 20 years the experiences of immigrants and refugees moving to the Dayton area. In the assessment study, the co-authors identified the issues that often create barriers to integration and made recommendations for how Welcome Dayton could overcome those obstacles and — like the Ahiska Turks — thrive.
When Shakhbandarov first migrated to Dayton after brief stops in Abilene, Texas, and Boise, Idaho, there were, he says, but seven or eight Ahiska Turkish families living here. Five years later, there are nearly 400.
“There are so many here now, I don’t know them all anymore,” he says with a thin smile.
Why are so many Ahiska Turks coming to Dayton, Ohio? And Ecuadorians? And Rwandans? And Congolese? And Iraqis?
For that matter, why is Dayton putting out the welcome mat when other states — notably Arizona, Alabama and Georgia — and cities are doing just the opposite?
The simple answer: economics.
Manufacturing left much of the Midwest, and with it, Dayton lost half its population since 1960. Houses that were once filled with prosperous families now stand like rows of broken teeth, empty and shuttered.
By welcoming immigrants, Dayton believes it has found a way to reverse those fortunes.
“Immigrants are extremely beneficial to the Dayton economy,” says Melissa Bertolo, program coordinator of Welcome Dayton. “They are two to three times more likely to start businesses than people born in the United States. Meanwhile, homes are being bought and revitalized in the Dayton area.”
The very presence of immigrants in Dayton, says Majka, is like a mini-economic stimulus.
“They shop, they spend, they open small businesses and create jobs,” he says.
Because the program is not yet 2 years old — the Welcome Dayton resolution was passed by the City Commission in October 2011 — there are not yet hard figures to assess the financial impact of immigrants and refugees in the community.
But there is anecdotal evidence that many neighborhoods have seen crime rates fall and property values rise.
“We bring many positive things to the community,” says Shakhbandarov, who, despite his youth, is founder and president of the Ahiska Turkish Community Center on East Fifth Street, where he works full time. “Right now, they might not see what we can do, but they see the potential of what we can do.”
It’s not all about the money. The city has a long and rich history of helping its own. Welcome Dayton is more or less an extension of that munificence.
“Why do it?” Majka asks. “It touches on our core values as a society to offer a helping hand to people in need.”
Tom Wahlrab, generally considered the father of Welcome Dayton, agrees.
“For others, it was the economic factor,” says Wahlrab, the now-retired director of the city’s human relations council. “For me, it was the human factor. If I see people suffering, how can I in my life live with that knowledge and not help?”
That suffering is real. Shakhbandarov was 6 years old when his family fled a bloody pogrom in Uzbekistan against Ahiska Turks and resettled in Russia.
“I saw many, many friends killed,” he says. “I was afraid all the time. But it was more scary to see the older people, the adults, being so afraid. You never think your father will be scared of anything. He is Superman and you don’t think he is ever scared or helpless.”
In Russia, things weren’t much better.
“We could not get jobs without paperwork, and they gave us no paperwork,” he says, holding an unlit cigarette and a lighter in his left hand that he absently taps against his thigh. “You had to pay the police, the government under the table just to work. If you didn’t, they would put you in jail for days, for months. There were segregated classes and no medical treatment. We were nothing.”
It’s those sort of stories that led City Commissioner Matt Joseph ’94 to help lead the Welcome Dayton movement.
“From a moral standpoint it was the right thing to do,” says Joseph.
For Joseph, the decision to back Welcome Dayton was “more on a personal level than a commissioner level.”
“I guess it’s whatever’s left of the Marianist philosophy after all these years,” he says about his UD education, which taught him to be committed to a common good. “Bottom line, immigrants were already here, and we needed to do something to make sure they weren’t marginalized.”
Indeed, Dayton has been resettling refugees through Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley for more than 70 years, says Dorothy Balser, manager of refugee resettlement and mission services. She estimates that about 140 refugees are settled in Dayton through the U.S. State Department each year.
“We do this and have been doing this regardless of the [Welcome Dayton] initiative,” she says.
Still, her department works in collaboration with Welcome Dayton to ensure achievement of mutual goals: self-sufficiency for immigrants and refugees as soon as possible after arrival, and community integration.
To that end, Welcome Dayton has brought together several entities — Dayton Public Schools, UD, the Dayton Metro Library, law enforcement and clergy, among others — to provide the necessary tools for integration.
“It’s about synergy,” says Wahlrab, who earned a master’s degree from UD in 1984. “It’s about connecting and talking and helping one another in ways that weren’t happening before.”
Working together to achieve a common goal is something with which Dayton is familiar. It’s the same sort of model that worked in saving lives during the 1913 flood and now ensures smooth transitions for those coming to Dayton from foreign lands.
“I think for me, I’ve always viewed the city as being open,” says Nan Whaley ’98, a city commissioner for eight years. “At the core, that’s how we grow, as an open community. … Anyone can come here and follow their dreams and make a difference.”
Whaley was raised in a little town south of Indianapolis. She says her first experience with Dayton was when she attended UD; her first experience with public office, being elected at age 29.
“[I]t says something about who we are as a community,” she says.
The message is clear. Nobody, not even those born in the U.S., can — or has to — do it alone.
“It’s easier to acclimate when others are there to help,” says Bertolo of the coordinated effort to provide assistance.
It will be easier still for the children of current immigrants.
“My grandfather was born in (Eastern European) Georgia,” says Shakhbandarov. “My father was born in Azerbaijan. I was born in Uzbekistan. My son was born in the United States.”
He knows that his 3-year-old son will never have to watch his friends butchered in a military pogrom or pay grubby-handed bureaucrats just to get a job.
This is what Welcome Dayton has to offer. Assistance. Opportunity. Freedom.
For Shakhbandarov, a life that seemed so strange and terrifying that night in Atlanta is now filled with promise.
“When I first came here and saw all the buildings and high rises and computers — I never had a computer before — and the food, lots of food, it was a very unique experience,” he says. “To open the refrigerator and it is full … many people don’t know what it is like to open the refrigerator and find it full of food and drinks.
“For the first three, six months I can’t sleep. I was always worried what will happen. How will I keep my identity? It causes a huge depression. But little by little, it gets better. Dayton is very welcoming, and now I have a vision of a life. And for my son, I have a better vision than I had for myself. What is happening here in Dayton could be a great example for others.”
He sighs, able to breathe easy.
Gene Williams is a former executive editor of the Cherry Hill, N.J., Courier-Post. In the course of reporting this story, he drank his first-ever cup of hot Turkish tea. Make that two.