Posted July 15th 2010 at 3:16 pm by
in Finding Brotherly Love: Refugee Integration in Philadelphia

Finding Brotherly Love: Refugee Integration in Philadelphia

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.

origin of refugees pie chart 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.

KarinPost1 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.

4 responses to “Finding Brotherly Love: Refugee Integration in Philadelphia”

  1. Stefanie says:

    Karin, what a great series! I’m glad that you are addressing this. Coming from LA, with both sides of my family having strong immigrant histories, I am always very interested to hear stories about how immigrant and refugee communities re-establish themselves in the states. Before coming to DUSP, I worked for a program called the National Gender & Equity Campaign , where we talked a lot about how gender dynamics play out in Asian refugee communities once they arrive in the states. Women in the community often balance struggling with the pressures of economic hardship and language difficulties while also negotiating shifting gender roles. There are a few really cool orgs that are working on just this intersection– like Khmer Girls in Action in the Cambodia community in Los Angeles and Association for the Advancement of Hmong Women in Minnesota in the Hmong community in Minnesota.

    Also, you should post a link to your thesis! I’d love to read it.

  2. Alissa says:

    Karin, what a great topic! Having grown up in Philadelphia, it’s impossible to ignore the changes that have occurred in the city with each new wave of immigration. What used to be the Italian Market is now a neighborhood split between old Italian families, and newer Hispanic/Asian immigrants. I wonder how the character of the city – which some would probably say doesn’t have an overly ‘brotherly’ vibe – affects a refugee’s immigration experience? This is clearly a very timely issue and I appreciate hearing about it in Philadelphia!

  3. Alexa Mills says:

    This is great. I didn’t really know anything about immigrants in Philadelphia before reading this post. Now I am really interested. I would love to hear the stories of some of the businesses in New World Plaza and also more about the immigrants themselves. Whatever you have planned for future posts, I am looking forward to more.

  4. Julie T. says:

    This is a great post, Karin! It’s interesting how you highlighted some of the ways in which different ethnic communities help each other. I’ve been guilty of “siloing” communities in work and research, so it’s really nice to see collaboration among ethnic groups!

    Looking forward to more!