Why are there so many Ethiopian parking attendants in Philly? Why does South Philly have a two-city block known as “New World Plaza” that looks like a shopping mall straight from Saigon?
Approximately 60,000 refugees entered the U.S. last year, many of them arriving to urban areas. Although this population is a relatively small portion of total immigration, just ten percent, refugees bring cultural, economic, and social assets that impact cities. In Philadelphia, more than 600 refugees are resettled in the city per year, but through social connections and chain-migration (applying for relatives’ visas) refugee communities grow and thrive. The largest refugee communities in Philadelphia are from the Former Soviet Union, Vietnam and Liberia.
Adapted using data from Singer et al, 2008
The City of Brotherly Love has been a home for people seeking refuge since the 17th century when William Penn established the Quaker colonies for European migrants fleeing religious persecution and famine. But when Vietnamese refugees arrived in enormous numbers during the late 1970s, both governmental and non-governmental agencies scrambled to form what seemed like a rescue operation. Amidst the frenzy, some even stayed in temporary housing at military barracks. Now, refugees enter the U.S. through a systemized public-private partnership with defined programs and temporary assistance.
Private agencies provide refugees with approximately four months of assistance: case management, employment assistance, financial assistance, and medical care. After that period, refugees must rely on their own assets, grasp of the English language and leverage social networks to begin paying bills and providing for their families.
Fresh catch! This grocery store is just one establishment in South Philly’s “New World Plaza” which offers specialty grocery stores, Pho restaurants, Buddhist apothecaries, karaoke bars, salons, banks and other community-run businesses. Photo by Karin Brandt
Needless to say this is a daunting task. For example, Karen refugees journeyed from the rural Thai-Burma border to bustling, crowded South Philly realizing with disappointment that the American Dream was not at the doorstep. In the four-month whirlwind to economic self-sufficiency, fathers and young men navigated two SEPTA buses on an hour-long commute to factory work. Children went to school with limited English. Women attended ESL (English as a Second Language) classes and looked for work during the day. Equipped with cherished electric rice cookers, they cooked traditional dinners, benefiting from local Cambodian stores who imported spices for the Karen community. Together, the community watched the news unfold of continued violence in Burma. This is just one account of the many immigrant groups that are growing in Philadelphia each day.
In this summer blog series, I’ll be exploring how refugees reconcile the past and navigate their way to create communities in the City of Brotherly Love.
Karin Brandt recently completed the Master in City Planning degree at the Department of Urban Studies & Planning. Before MIT, she worked as an AmeriCorps Member in Philadelphia with immigrants. Karin continued pursuing questions raised from that experience in her thesis on urban immigrant integration.