The produce shelves in Family Grocer in Akron’s North Hill are a snapshot of the exotic.
Pumpkin leaves, tiny eggplants, colorful peppers almost too hot to touch. Prickly-looking vegetables, skinny squashes. These are the foods that help feed a community of Southeast Asian refugees and immigrants, among the latest to call this dynamic neighborhood home.
For decades, newcomers to this country have settled here and thrived. Italians, Poles, Hispanics and others followed family members for affordable housing and employment to gradually assimilate to their new country.
The learning works both ways. While they work to fit into their Northeast Ohio neighborhood, the existing residents gain plenty, too. Naresh Subba’s Family Grocer and dozens of other ethnic markets and restaurants are attracting people of all ages and ethnicities.
GROWING TOGETHER, NOT APART
In recent years, North Hill has been a centerpiece of refugee and resettlement due in large part to the International Institute of Akron. The agency on East Tallmadge Avenue is housed in an old brick building. Its labyrinth-like offices and cubicles host a steady stream of refugees and others seeking support.
These days, many clients are from Bhutan and other Southeast Asian countries. The agency earlier this summer received its first Syrian families. More are expected, said Liz Walters, IIA’s community outreach director.
Throughout the year, IIA hosts market tours and other events to introduce long-time residents to newer residents and their businesses. The small business owners — mostly of restaurants and markets — use the opportunity to talk about their immigrant or refugee experience. Refugees are people forced to leave their country, almost always because of violence. Immigrants are those who chose to leave, usually for economic or educational reasons.
Subba, 48, is Bhutanese and had lived in refugee camps in Nepal before moving to the area in 2002 to attend Kent State University. He applied for asylum after his student visa expired. He has a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from Kent.
Like most who seek employment and other relocation assistance through IIA and its support agencies, Subba sought naturalization. He became a U.S. citizen in 2014. Other family members followed from Bhutan. He owns the market with a brother and nephew.
Family Grocer has a small café along with dry goods and fresh vegetables and fruits. “These are the types of foods (Southeast Asians) are used to eating … especially older people,” Subba explains.
He said that until IIA started its popular market tours, very few American-born residents would venture inside.
So far this year, IIA has helped resettle 550 refugees in the Akron area, Walters says. In August, the agency was expecting 100 new residents, its highest ever.
Joe Cimperman, president of Global Cleveland, said the city has about 8,000 refugees, and gets around 1,000 additional refugees annually. The agency focuses a large part of its resources on connecting immigrants with employers and educational institutions, working closely with agencies such as Catholic Charities and the Cleveland Foundation. Much of Global Cleveland’s focus is on the economic impact of these newly arrived citizens who help counter dropping population numbers in the city.
“The refugees today become the citizen and then the business owner of tomorrow,” Cimperman says. “Helping immigrants is not a social service; it’s an economic development issue.”
At IIA, bridging the gap between newly arrived citizens and local residents is key to developing the region by attracting and retaining millennials, Walters says. “They grew up in a global world and they want a global hometown. Any city that struggles with population losses, immigrants are key.”
OPPORTUNITIES TO LEARN
Agencies such as IIA rely on dozens of volunteers, many of them retirees or others looking for encore careers or activities. Some interview walk-in clients and provide clerical help. Others use their backgrounds in finance or small business to help get set up in jobs or businesses. The agency always has a need for people to work on a long-term basis with families, providing an opportunity for each side — newcomer and long-time resident — to learn about the other’s culture, Walters says. Volunteers can collect and deliver donations of blankets, towels and kitchen items.
Formal tours of businesses and neighborhoods are a good way for people to get to know each other, but informal encounters often can lead to more substantial relationships, Walters says.
One way is by patronizing ethnic markets and restaurants and talking to the owners, she says. Or, if a new family moves into your neighborhood, knock on the door and introduce yourself. Remember that a language barrier, cultural differences (women may be uncomfortable talking directly with a man), and other issues can lead to awkward encounters. Don’t give up, take your time and be genuinely friendly to bridge the gap, she advises.
Another hint: Be willing to talk about your own family story with newly arrived residents.
“We all came from somewhere else,” Walters says. “The American culture has incredible capacity to expand to welcome new cultures, new music, new foods, new traditions and new celebrations.”