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New study lauds benefits of immigration in Akron

14 Jul

By Rick Armon and Katie Byard

The foreign-born population in Akron — everyone from refugees to international students — is an economic powerhouse, a new study says.

That group held nearly $137 million in spending power in 2013 and helped boost the total housing value in Summit County by $207 million between 2000 and 2013, according to the report Welcome to Akron: How Immigrants and Refugees Are Contributing to Akron’s Economic Growth.

Foreign-born residents — now estimated at more than 9,100 people — also helped prevent the city’s population from plummeting faster than it has and infused life into Akron’s North Hill neighborhood.

“This report is going to prompt some really healthy conversations across the city,” said Kyle Kutuchief, Akron program director for the Knight Foundation.

The foundation funded the study, which was completed by the Partnership for a New American Economy.

It comes at the same time that immigration has become a topic in the presidential election, with debate swirling over the country’s refugee and immigration policies.


Other key conclusions from the Akron report include:

•  The city’s population fell 1 percent to 198,247 people from 2007 to 2013. But the number of foreign-born people rose 30.8 percent over that time period to more than 9,000.

• 16.8 percent of foreign-born people own their houses without any debt, compared with 14.2 percent of U.S.-born residents.

•  Foreign-born residents make up 11 percent of workers in manufacturing and 11.7 percent of all science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs.

• 11.1 percent of foreign-born people are self-employed, while 6.2 percent of the U.S.-born population work for their own businesses.

• 27.4 percent of foreign-born people have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 18.2 percent of U.S.-born residents.

The report’s findings mirror similar studies completed two years ago that credited immigrants with helping boost the local population, manufacturing jobs and housing values. Akron leaders hope the data help change some negative attitudes about immigrants in the community.

“We wish that everyone was driven by the humanitarian need of the refugees and the immigrants, but that’s not enough for some people,” said Elizabeth Walters, community outreach ­coordinator at the International Institute of Akron, which works to resettle refugees in the community. “This data really shows the huge impact that these folks have.”

Most of the refugees resettled in Akron have come from Bhutan, with other large groups from countries such as Myanmar, Iraq and Uzbekistan.

Walters predicted that the next big influx locally will be from Congo.

Changing attitudes

A Pew Research Center poll indicates that Americans are softening their stance on immigration.

The poll released earlier this year showed 59 percent of respondents believe immigrants are strengthening the country, up from 45 percent in 2011.

Meanwhile, 33 percent thought they are a burden, down from 44 percent over the same time period.

Part of that change could be millennials knowing that the United States is part of a global economy and embracing different cultures, experts said.

Government leaders across the country are recognizing the positive benefits of immigration and developing strategies to become more welcoming, said Dan Wallace, director for state and local initiatives for the Partnership for a New American Economy.

In the past, it’s been nonprofit and faith-based institutions focused on immigration issues. But since 1970, none of the 50 largest metropolitan areas grew without a large influx of immigrants, Wallace said.

“More and more governments are realizing they have an important role,” he said. “Not only at the federal level, but at the local level as well.”

Earlier this year, the International Institute of Akron received a $12,500 matching grant to help make Akron and Summit County more welcoming to immigrants and refugees.

Local leaders are meeting now to develop a strategy for the Gateway for Growth initiative.

One of the biggest challenges for communities is developing a coordinated effort, Wallace said.

The faith-based World Relief Organization, which has offices nationwide and is based on Grant Street, also is working in the community and has brought in 132 refugees since opening in February 2015.

Kara Ulmer, office director of World Relief Akron, views the International Institute and World Relief as complementary organizations.

“Akron has done a good job welcoming and serving” the refugee community because of the International Institute, she said.

Real stories

Juan Contreras came to Akron 12 years ago from Mexico City to get his master’s degree at the University of Akron.

He joked that “this is not an area that a lot of Latinos pick” because of the weather, but the university offered him a graduate assistantship. He fell in love with teaching and has been here ever since, living the entire time in the city’s Highland Square neighborhood.

Contreras, 36, is now a lecturer in communications at the University of Akron, and previously taught at Walsh University and Stark State College.

“I think Akron is a very welcoming community,” said Contreras, who works with Global Ties Akron, a group that helps foreign-born people with the transition.

He didn’t experience the culture shock that many immigrants do because he spoke English and had visited the United States before. But it is stressful, he said, as people make the adjustment while at the same time missing their families and former homes.

“You don’t know how the rules work,” said Contreras, who has not yet become a U.S. citizen. “Sometimes there’s this expectation in general that if you come from another country, you’re automatically going to understand how everything works.”

He said the Akron community can be more welcoming by offering help with simple issues such as how to get a driver’s license.

Former refugees Hem Rai and Mon Phuyel would like to see a central place where resources are brought together to help foreign-born residents.

In just several years, Rai and Phuyel, both 28, have gone from living in a refugee camp in Nepal to owning a restaurant and bar in Akron’s North Hill community, where many refugees from southeast Asia have settled.

Rai runs the restaurant, Nepali Kitchen, and Phuyel operates the nearby the Hill Pub, both on East Cuyahoga Falls Avenue. Together, the bar and restaurant employ a handful of people.

The two men, originally from Bhutan, met as children in the camp. They have dreams of more real estate investments, perhaps buying residential properties to fix up and rent.

“In the United States, there’s a lot of opportunity,” Rai said.

Phuyel added: “You go back to my country — Nepal — there’s no opportunity, no money. Everywhere poverty.”

The two, whose wives also lived in the camp, originally settled in Dayton, and came to Akron after hearing from Bhutanese in Akron that Northeast Ohio was lacking eateries focusing on Nepali cuisine.

Over the last six years, the International Institute has helped settle 1,905 refugees from Bhutan living in Akron, including those who moved to Akron after initially settling in another area in the United States.

Rai said in talking with refugees, Americans can learn refugees are hardworking people who care about their surroundings, just like them.

“We’re working very hard here and we want to be an example for [other refugees],” he said.

They’re aware that many refugees leave North Hill once they have enough money to afford a house in areas such as Cuyahoga Falls and Stow.

“We are very positive for the community. We do love this community. … We are helping the community get better,” Phuyel said.