One Neighborhood, 30 Languages: Building community in Akron's North Hill

click to enlarge One Neighborhood, 30 Languages: Building community in Akron's North Hill
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Walking down the streets of North Hill, it's possible to hear more than a dozen languages. Nepali men wear traditional Daura-Suruwals and Afghani women dress in burqas, maintaining their culture and identity through dress. From English to Vietnamese to Nepali and Arabic, North Hill is a multicultural neighborhood where people from all over the world now reside.

This has long been North Hill's story. For more than a century, the neighborhood has been a home for waves of immigrants, refugees and African Americans. The city says North Hill is the most racially and ethnically diverse community in Akron.

"North Hill has always been a welcoming community," says Sylvia Gage, who has lived in North Hill for more than 50 years. "We've always had different people come in here. I can't think of any other neighborhood that's as open and as a mixed as this community is."

John Valle, assistant to Akron mayor Dan Horrigan and director of neighborhood assistance, remembers growing up in North Hill when it was predominantly Italian and African American. He has distinct memories of attending Mass every Sunday and then going to Ninni's Bakery to buy Italian bread "hot out of the oven." There were four Catholic churches in a 1-mile radius, he says.

Valle says that although many of the descendents of Italian immigrants have left North Hill, many still attend spaghetti dinners at Carovillese Lodge & Club every Tuesday and the Italian Center every Thursday.

And in the past decade, North Hill has received a new wave of immigrants.

According to an Akron Beacon Journal report published in 2014, Akron welcomed its first family of Bhutanese refugees of Nepali descent in 2008. By 2014, the International Institute of Akron (IIA), a local nonprofit organization that welcomes new Americans to the U.S., had resettled more than 1,500 Bhutanese refugees.

"Our goal, and it's connected to our mission, is always integration," says IIA executive director Madhu Sharma. "We always hope to be part of helping shape the solutions for immigrants in the neighborhood."

According to 2017 estimates from the United States Census Bureau, roughly 46 percent of residents in the 44310 ZIP code identified as non-white, with 23 percent identifying as Black or African American and 20 percent identifying as Asian. About 23 percent of people over the age of 5 spoke a language other than English at home.

Signs at the neighborhood's boundaries boast that North Hill is "Akron's International District." But not everyone embraces the "International District" label — particularly the neighborhood's African American families, some of whom feel like their history has been forgotten.

And even those who like the label know that the mixing of cultures is never easy. New and longtime residents alike must overcome language barriers, cultural differences and competition for resources.

But despite these challenges, North Hill is one of the few neighborhoods in Akron that has been able to grow its population in recent years. People from many different backgrounds live side by side, and leaders are continually working to integrate newcomers.

"The bottom line is, we can either focus on the good or we can focus on the bad. And I choose to focus on the good," says the Rev. Carl Wallace, who is retired from Trinity United Church of Christ in North Hill.

"There's so many good things happening in North Hill, so many great things that continue to happen in North Hill, and that is the one place where I feel like one day somebody is going to realize that people will want to emulate this community," he adds. "This is going to be a community that should be emulated throughout this great nation."

Shanti Chapagi was 22 years old when he was forced to leave Bhutan. He spent the next 22 years in a refugee camp in Nepal.

"I was very sad and depressed because we left all behind. We had land, we had an orchard, cardamom, oranges, we had a cattle," says Chapagi, who is now 47. "It was very much a miserable life we had in the camp."

click to enlarge James and Gwen Wright
James and Gwen Wright

Many immigrants in North Hill are Bhutanese refugees of Nepali descent. Almost all of them are Lhostampa, who are originally from Nepal but had been living in the neighboring Himalayan nation of Bhutan for decades. In the 1990s, Bhutan's government — largely run by the Drupka ethnic majority — felt threatened by the growing population of Lhostampa and began deporting their families.

"The government is saying we are anti-national, but we are not anti-national. We are just fighting for human rights. And justice," says Mon Bahadur Kharka.

After fleeing Bhutan, many refugees lost their homes and farmland. They were sent to refugee camps in Nepal and India where they faced extreme poverty, malnutrition and disease.

"I used to cry all the time when I was in the camp because I was not getting enough to eat," says 81-year-old Madhu Maya.

Prior to arriving in the camps, Maya remembers police threatening her family and forcing them to leave Bhutan.

"Everybody left Bhutan and the police used to come to our house. Everywhere police, police. So we were very much scared to stay," she says. 

The fear of police among the Bhutanese and Nepali communities is something Akron Police Department officer Jim Leadbetter has noticed in the last 12 years on the job. He says the department is actively trying to ease tension by attending community events and forging connections with the younger generation.

"A lot of it falls on us to be out there, to go to these meetings, and be the liaisons that we're supposed to be to the community," Leadbetter says. "So if somebody's scared of the police, well, they know [Officer] Danny [Ullman], and they're not going to be scared to go up and talk to him."

Chapagi and Maya say they are happy in Akron and that they feel welcome. Still, they often struggle with loneliness because they're used to having their neighbors and friends around them. The IIA says this is a common experience in their community.

"We used to stay almost 18 to 20 people together in the same house. But here I feel so lonely," says Maya. "There is not much interaction between the people at all. I have a father, mother, sisters, brothers — all the siblings, we stayed together. We have a lot of socialization. We cooked in a big pot. We eat together. I like that way. But here it's so lonely."

Four Bhutanese refugees of Nepali descent over the age of 40 told The Devil Strip they want more community spaces in North Hill where they can be among other people who share their culture.

As more and more families attempt to rebuild their lives in North Hill, organizations and neighbors in North Hill are helping them through the transition. Doug Wertz, for example, converted four baseball fields into farmland and founded Akron Cooperative Farms.

"The whole idea behind Akron Cooperative Farms is giving people access to land because many of the people are from an agrarian background and they haven't had the ability to have a garden," Wertz says.

Bhakta Rizal founded Shanti Community Farms to create a space for refugees and immigrants to farm and be in community with each other.

"I like Shanti Community Farms the most in Akron because I can go out of the house, work in the farm and then come back home and bring some vegetables. So that is the part I like most about Akron right now," says Kharka.

Rizal has lived in the U.S. for about 20 years and North Hill for four years.

"What happened is when the people come from the poorest country to this country, they have a dream. Everybody has a dream," Rizal says. "They want to build a house, they want to buy a car. That is the American dream to achieve."

Rizal says the Bhutanese and Nepali families are very close and typically live in one house together. They often share their income until they can afford to buy a home and a car. He says they are usually hesitant to take out loans from banks and regularly loan each other money so they don't have to pay interest.

"Our community is so much united," he says. "We work. For example, if you have a family of six people and they all work and they make $1,500 a month, they stay together in the same house. So six times $1,500 is $9,000 coming a month. They will spend only $2,000 for expenditures. In a year, they buy a house."

He adds, "So then they buy one house with one brother. They work again together, make that money, buy another house. By six years they'll buy six houses. Easily. They don't bother to [get a] loan from the bank."

According to a report from New American Economy, the median refugee household earns an annual income of around $22,000 during their first five years in the U.S. But after 15 years, the median rises to $37,000. The median refugee household reaches parity with the median U.S. household — $51,000 in annual income — after 16 to 25 years.

"Refugees, by the nature of their experience, are often forced to become resourceful," the report says. "Families from Bhutan or Burma — who often have spent years in refugee camps — frequently find creative ways to eke out a living in an informal economy."

IIA executive director Madhu Sharma says that in more than 20 years working with refugees, she has often seen practices like this. 

"What I can tell you from my experience is yes, they're taxpayers," Sharma says. "There's a desire to get off of public benefits as soon as they possibly can get off of public benefits. There's a desire to be independent and self-sufficient."

North Hill residents Gwen Wright and James Wright have helped the immigrant and refugee populations in North Hill since they moved into the neighborhood in 2015.

They've helped with resettlement efforts by doing family events through the YMCA, offering transportation services to new residents, and connecting their neighbors to local agencies that can help them integrate.

Over the years, however, the Wrights have noticed tension between refugees and immigrants and North Hill's black residents.

"I think there's a big resentment in the black community that has never gone away," James Wright says. "And as new people come in, they feel even less and less received. On the flip side of it, there is a lot of things that are available that they just don't know how to take advantage of."

Liddel Brown, a 1988 graduate of North High School who still lives in the neighborhood, owns a lawn mowing and snow removal business called God's Lawn and Garden. His business employs local teenagers to help them develop work experience and teach them how to manage money.

Brown feels that there's a disparity between the resources North Hill's refugees and immigrants have received and those available to the neighborhood's longtime black residents.

"I look at it as a disadvantage to give one group of people financial support and kind of, like, leave the other one in the past. It's almost like you're trying to create tension without helping both parties," Brown says. "It's just like you're slapping us in the face along with what you've already done to us in the past."

Brown has been working on an Akron history project to bring awareness to notable black community members from North Hill. For example, Brown says many people don't know about The Akron Informer, the first black newspaper in Akron. It was created in 1921 by Amos Forman, who felt that the African American community was being ignored by other papers in the city.

According to a 1975 dissertation titled "The Contributions of Blacks in Akron: 1825–1975" by Shirla Robinson McClain, The Akron Informer was a four-page weekly publication that attempted to "educate and improve the status of the city's Negroes." Robinson writes that, "Articles included church news and news items about coming events in the Black community, but Forman focused his attention on editorial comments about the conditions that prevented Akron's Negroes from advancing."

"History gets lost and it doesn't get exposed, so a lot of people are not aware of all the history that we have over here," Brown says.

Rev. Wallace says a lot of African Americans in North Hill "don't feel it's appropriate" to label North Hill as Akron's International District.

"It basically excludes the history that we have," Wallace says. "That phrase created a lot of tension. If you continue to promote that as the international district, you will find out that's going to alienate more and more African Americans."

Wallace says he worked closely with Elaine Woloshyn, the previous director of IIA, to create the slogan, "One Community, Many Cultures," to better represent North Hill residents.

"There's no animosity toward people from anywhere," Brown adds. "Trust and believe, we love these people who moved over here, but they get resources that we should be able to have just as well, so it can be a melting pot of businesses."

According to John Ughrin, executive director of the North Akron Community Development Corporation (CDC), North Hill's diversity makes the neighborhood economy more likely to thrive — but there are still plenty of hurdles to overcome.

Ughrin says business districts typically thrive when there's a diversity of people surrounding it, as well as an assortment of businesses located within the district.

"The research that I've done indicates that diversity is actually the hallmark of a successful business district," he says. "In Akron, we tend to look at Highland Square. What a lot of people don't understand about Highland Square is that in very close proximity to that location you have high-income neighborhoods, low-income neighborhoods, large-family neighborhoods and small-family neighborhoods, as well as a bit of ethnic diversity. All of those things lead to a successful district."

The North Akron CDC was founded in 2015 after the North Hill Better Block event. Right now, Ughrin says North Hill needs more space for new businesses.

click to enlarge Shanti Chapagi
Shanti Chapagi

Katie Beck manages the Exchange House, a cultural hub and public meeting place in North Hill. She says the community needs a unified vision for its business district as it moves forward.

"The resources are here. The organizations are here. The leaders are here. But I don't feel like we're working with an overall vision yet," she says. "That's difficult to do because there are so many voices and so many ideas. But overall in terms of driving economic opportunity and activating this business district, it's just been at a standstill for a while."

To address this challenge, Ughrin says the CDC has been trying to foster more communication between the businesses through an email list. They're also going to add signage around the business district with the tagline Rev. Wallace and Elaine Woloshyn proposed years ago: "One Community, Many Cultures."

Ughrin is hopeful about the future of the business district.

"It's hard to know there's a renaissance until after it's happened," he says. "We're on the verge of one here. I feel like if someone did pick up one of the vacant lots, say on Main Street, and build a commercial building from scratch, I think that ... it would be rented very quickly, would probably encourage others to do it."

In an effort to address inter-community tension in North Hill, IIA's then-director of New Initiatives, Susan Berg Herman, supervised the North Hill Listening Project. During the project, Kent State University graduates Liz Schmidt, Amanda Schwaben and Jenna Lada interviewed 37 community members about their lives in North Hill.

Schmidt and Schwaben then used data from the project, advised by KSU assistant professor Johanna Solomon, to do further research on language barriers and racial narratives through Kent State's School of Peace and Conflict Studies.

Their goal, Schmidt writes in her thesis, was to "open dialogue around race and ethnicity in response to community feedback about ethnic conflict."

"So much of what the community needs is this deep sense of connection," Schmidt says. "I don't think you can say what the community has experienced is overwhelmingly negative or positive. A lot of the issues that the community deals with are just human."

Fifty-six percent of the people researchers interviewed were born in the U.S., 32 percent were refugees, 7 percent were naturalized citizens and 5 percent were non-refugee green card holders. Broken down by ethnicity, 26 percent of participants were white Americans, 24 percent were South Asian, 18 percent were African American, 18 percent were Middle Eastern or Afghani and 8 percent were Latinx.

"Most [immigrants] said they learned to appreciate diversity and felt favorable towards people of other races or ethnicities," researchers found. But they also reported that "in some cases, other community members reported negative views of racial differences being adopted. The most prominent of these involved anti-blackness."

The report continues: "Immigrant communities contained examples of participants feeling afraid of African Americans and specifying their race when there was no clear connection to the behavior. This suggests that prominent stereotypes of African Americans engaging in criminal or dangerous behavior are appearing in both Hispanic and non-Hispanic immigrant communities."

Additionally, Schmidt writes, "Many participants across communities made positive statements about diversity, but only a portion of participants had strong relationships across communities."

In other words, although North Hill's residents have diverse neighbors, they seldom feel deep connections with neighbors who have different cultural backgrounds.

The Exchange House has identified the same problem. Since 2017, Exchange House has been hosting story circles, multilingual meals and dance classes in the community to encourage interaction between neighbors.

To address the findings from the North Hill Listening Project, organizers created monthly community meetings, along with a newsletter.

"Something we're focusing on for this monthly gathering, 'community network' is what we're calling it, is trying to strengthen those ties between organizations, neighbors, leaders," says Beck.

At each meeting, Exchange House staff invite someone from the community to share resources. They also encourage community members to share personal stories in small group sessions at the beginning of each meeting, rather than doing general introductions. At the May meeting, residents were prompted to share a story about a time when they needed to escape a situation.

"Something we've realized is doing one-minute introductions of yourself, you can see the person and kind of know them, but there's no personal connection made. And one of the primary goals is for everyone to be making new connections between people that don't know each other," Beck says.

Those connections are even more difficult to forge in a community where more than 30 languages are spoken. Older immigrant and refugee residents typically rely on younger people as "cultural brokers," Beck says. Translators and interpreters are urgently needed.

click to enlarge Bhakta Rizal
Bhakta Rizal

Even at the Exchange House, Beck says, "there's almost like a dance we do with gestures and body language" when attempting to communicate with English language learners. 

"Our biggest asset in our community right now is the young people who are the language and cultural brokers," Beck adds. "They're the ones who are helping make decisions with medical bills or insurance or legal things. They have to navigate a lot of that. What I would like to see is a structure that supports more of that brokering. Because it's really important work, and it's really difficult. And it takes a lot of time and a lot of relationship building."

In Schmidt's thesis project, when interviewing white residents about their relationships with immigrants, "nine participants brought up language barriers as a hindrance of forming relationships." Among African American residents, "two said that some immigrants go as far as to feign language barriers to avoid contact" with others.

Bhutanese refugee Mon Bahadar Kharka has lived in North Hill for nine years, after spending more than 18 years in a refugee camp in Nepal. He says English has been challenging to learn.

"I went to learn the language, but I could not pick it up. It's very difficult. I think it's too old for me to go back and learn the language," Kharka says.

Even Rizal, who has lived in the U.S. for two decades, says learning English hasn't been easy.

"When people are like 40 years [old] or 45 years [old], they cannot go back to school or college and learn this language, you know? English is not easy. It has meaning after meaning after meaning. It is not easy at all. It took me a long time to learn the language. And still I'm not good at all. Still I'm learning. I can write better, but in speaking I get very nervous," he says.

IIA's Sharma says bridging the language barriers are key to helping develop stronger relationships among neighbors — but she stresses that it's easier to do than some might think.

"While I know language access is always a concern, you'd be amazed at how much a neighbor and a neighbor's attitude and a neighbor's willingness to cross those language barriers can help an immigrant feel less lonely," she says.

At North High School, which serves North Hill, counselor Brian Caperones says 47.9 percent of students have limited English proficiency. There are 19 languages spoken within the student body.

Caperones says the school works diligently with students to help them learn English through the help of translators and teachers who are TESOL certified, which means they specialize in teaching English to people who speak other languages.

The school also works to bridge cultural gaps between the students.

"We do try to do a lot of recognizing the cultures here. We do a culture fair once a year. And even if you go to the dances and stuff like that, we'll play a mix of music depending on where the kids are from and we'll get input from them," Caperones says.

Like Beck and Caperones, Rev. Wallace believes the younger generation of North Hill residents is key to continuing dialogue within the community.

"All these stereotypes, all these things ... some people will not be able to see past us, but then there are those of us who can. That's why the future is with the young people," Rev. Wallace says. "Because I'm looking at the young people embracing that. That's the big difference. The young people are trying to embrace this. The young people are recognizing the oneness that can exist and the opportunity to live in harmony."

North Hill's demographics are going to continue to change. According to Sharma, IIA has not resettled a Bhutanese refugee since September 2018, but it is continually helping resettle Congolese refugees to North Hill.

click to enlarge Sylvia Gage
Sylvia Gage

Since fiscal years 2017 and 2018, IIA and World Relief Akron have welcomed 202 African refugees, all but two from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and they're expecting more in the coming years.

"I do feel that North Hill is a microcosm of the experience of the country," Sharma says. "North Hill gets to be in its own petri dish. But that dialogue within North Hill really is a conversation that requires listening and sharing experiences. And I believe that North Hill residents are willing to do that."

This article was originally published by The Devil Strip. It is reprinted here with permission.

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