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Half a dozen children bounce on a trampoline on the cramped front lawn of a Northeast Philadelphia rowhome, a big sister in a hijab keeping watch from the front steps. “Mohammed,” giggles a toddler, “take off your zapatos if you want to jump on the trampoline.”
The next block over, a mother pulls her son by the arm up the steps to their own, identical rowhome. He struggles against her grip and shouts sulkingly to three girls at the bottom of the stairs, “You’re black too, you know.” One of the girls — all of them are African-American — around the age of 10, calls back coolly, “At least we’re not Indian.”
Behind the neat facades of brick rowhomes marching block by block across Oxford Circle, a neighborhood is changing. Another block over, a woman stands on the steps of her home of 26 years and points across the street. Until just a few years ago, she says, that house and that house and that house, nearly all of them, were inhabited by white, mostly Irish-Catholic, Philadelphia natives like herself. Many were senior citizens. As they’ve passed away, new families have moved in from far further afield: Bangladesh, Syria, the Dominican Republic. The ice cream man is Palestinian, she says. He’s the one who taught her about Islamic restrictions on touching dogs, when she wondered why the neighborhood kids sometimes rushed to pet hers and other times shied away. “So I’m learning,” she says.
In a neighborhood where the number of foreign-born families has increased dramatically over the past two decades, everyone has a lot to learn. Since reaching its lowest point in a century in 2006, Philadelphia’s population has been steadily growing. But contrary to popular perception, the people driving that change aren’t upwardly mobile, white millennials snapping up the new cookie-cutter condos downtown. The vast majority of Philadelphia’s population growth is occurring in outlying “middle neighborhoods” — places that fall in the middle of the spectrum for incomes and housing prices, experiencing neither gentrification and displacement, nor shrinkage and stagnation, data compiled by Reinvestment Fund in partnership with Next City shows (full data set available in a brief by Reinvestment Fund here).
There are 138 census tracts in Philadelphia that meet this description. Forty-one percent of the city’s population lives in one, including a majority of the city’s immigrants. In 25 of these “middle neighborhood” tracts, more than a quarter of residents were born outside the U.S. In the city as a whole, just 13 percent were. While Philadelphia’s population overall grew by 2 percent between 2000 and 2015, and all middle markets grew by 5 percent, the population in these areas grew by 15 percent. That means in these 25 census tracts, the majority clustered in the Northeast, the number of immigrants increased from 26,942 in 2000 to 48,623 in 2015, a leap of 80 percent.
Around downtown, the picture of growth and development has been of new, wealthy, white faces pushing out brown and black residents. In these neighborhoods, another dynamic is at play: Refugees and immigrants, documented and undocumented, are replacing an aging white population, bringing with them new foods, new customs, new expectations for their futures. As they do, education needs are changing — both for the surge in young people, and for their parents, who are often also learning a new language, adapting to local customs and seeking work. Many have come in hopes of a better education for their children and themselves, and ended up in a city with an under-resourced, overcrowded school system. Now they, the schools and a host of social service agencies are trying to fill the gaps.
Oxford Circle is one of those neighborhoods. Once considered a “naturally occurring retirement community” for its high concentration of senior citizens, the neighborhood is now adapting to the needs of a massive spike in young people. According to Reinvestment Fund’s Policy Map, between 2000 and 2010, nearly all of the census tracts that make up the neighborhood have seen the population under the age of 18 increase by 21 percent or more, while the population over the age of 65 fell at the same rate. About half the tracts in Oxford Circle have seen the number of children between the ages of 5 and 9 increase by 58 percent, according to Reinvestment Fund. Many are refugees: Over the past two years, just one of the three agencies active in Philadelphia has resettled over 50 families in the Northeast section of the city that includes Oxford Circle.
I spent several months talking to the students, parents, teachers, pastors and social service providers who live, work and learn in Oxford Circle, a triangular tract roughly bounded by Roosevelt Boulevard on the east, Oxford Avenue on the west and Cottman Avenue on the north. In this fast-growing neighborhood, there’s no one story of what it means to be an immigrant or an American or a Philadelphian. One shop owner told me with disgust that he’d been profiled, pulled over and had his car towed — wrongly, he felt — and when he paid $75 to get it back, he found his Brazilian flag bumper sticker had been scraped off. A high school student and refugee gushed over what a relief it is to be in a country where she could trust police not to stop her at random and demand her immigration papers. Their stories would likely be familiar in many other aging, postindustrial American cities where immigrants play an important and, often, contested role in reviving stagnant local economies.
Instead of trying to present Oxford Circle’s story as a monolith, we have chosen to share the experiences of a handful of new Philadelphians in a neighborhood that represents both the city’s dynamic present, and a future yet to be determined. We’ve respected requests to use only first names for several subjects in order to preserve their privacy. These stories and the accompanying photos are part of Next City’s ongoing Philadelphia in Flux project, a data-driven exploration of Philadelphia’s changing neighborhoods supported by the William Penn Foundation.
Fatima Hussaine arrived in the U.S. in January.
“In Afghanistan, the level of education, sadly is so low,” she says. The bombings made it unsafe to leave the house, and when they were able to, there may be no classrooms, no school building. For two years before she left Afghanistan, she didn’t attend school at all.
“That one was the hardest time I had in my life,” she recalls. “I love Afghanistan, but in that time, Afghanistan became one small room. You cannot go outside, you cannot study, every time bomb, bomb, bomb.” Even in safety, her freedoms were curtailed: As they neared puberty, she and the girls were forbidden from playing soccer outside.
Though she misses her native country, leaving provided an education she never could have gotten otherwise. “In Afghanistan the ladies are all dependent to men. They cannot have their own house, they cannot stand in their own place,” she says. India, her first stop outside the country, was different. “They respect ladies, they say they are like a god. The ladies can have their own job. The ladies can have their own house,” she tells me, clearly enraptured by the idea. Seeing that, she says, “It was inside my heart something grow up: We can also have house, we can also study, we can also work.”
Now, for the first time in four years, she’s back in school: an 18-year-old in ninth-grade classes at Northeast High School, the city’s most populated high school. Drawing students from Oxford Circle as well as Rhawnhurst and other surrounding neighborhoods, it’s a remarkably diverse place. Among the 3,600 students, over 60 languages are spoken, about a fifth of students are currently in English-language-learner classes, and at least half the student body learned English as a second language.
Hussaine’s English is quite good, but she still attends an after-school program intended to help refugee youth with their English and homework. Run by the refugee resettlement agency HIAS Pennsylvania, the program was designed for students like her whose educations have been significantly disrupted. Many of the students — hailing from Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Iraq — are being asked to comprehend new content when they don’t yet speak the language.
But aside from giddily calling out the names of shapes and colors and common foods from Sesame Street flash cards, and the fact that most of the high-schoolers are babbling away in Arabic, they appear just like American teenagers: stealing each other’s fidget spinners, applying Snapchat filters to their selfies, flirting noisily. Two girls are practicing an acoustic version of Katy Perry’s “Fight Song” for the class graduation. Beneath the surface, they’re grappling with histories their American counterparts aren’t.
Since she came onboard as refugee education coordinator last March, Valeri Harteg of HIAS says the program has broadened its focus from purely homework help to include more language activities and emotional support.
“It’s interesting, you ask kids what they need, and at first a lot stick to the very concrete: homework help and English. I think that as they get more involved in the program, social struggles come out,” says Harteg. “They’ve been through so much, and it’s very easy for us to say kids are resilient, they’ll bounce back. But the older kids, they remember.”
Schools may be understaffed to address those struggles. Northeast High assigns a guidance counselor to ESL students, but with so many, he’s always stretched thin, says Harteg. HIAS is just one of a constellation of social service and arts organizations to partner with Northeast and other area schools in recent years to try to fill some of the gaps. This year, Arab arts organization Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture brought photographer Wendy Ewald to Northeast High to help students create an “Immigrant’s Alphabet.” Students chose words to illustrate for each letter: B for Border, D for Dreamer, L for Lonely, P for Prisoner, U for Unqualified, X for Xenophobia.
Working with photographer Wendy Ewald to create “An Immigrant's Alphabet,” Northeast High students act out “T” for “trafficking.”
Another organization called Writers Matter helped the refugee students compose poetry. Like the alphabet, they read as reflections on the in-between spaces many inhabit. “I am happy / I believe in Mohammed / I want to see my sister that is in Jordan,” reads one.
“I am in love with chocolate / I believe I can run faster / I want to be a soccer player / I am athletic / I felt sad when I leave my country / I wonder how my country is now / I worry about my country / I am helpful / I understand writing / I try to be a soldier / I hope I’ll be a soldier / I am brave,” reads another.
Amin, an immigrant from Morocco, lives in Oxford Circle with her two daughters.
She’s received a lot of support here at the Family Resource Center run by the Oxford Circle Christian Community Development Association (OCCCDA), an offshoot of the very active church. Last year, when Amin left her husband, her children received counseling there. Her daughters — Chams, 9, and Aya, 12 — attend after-school programs that the OCCCDA runs, and resource center staff helped her find a good middle school for Aya.
Earlier generations of Oxford Circle kids went to middle school in the neighborhood at Laura H. Carnell Middle School, associated with Laura H. Carnell Elementary. But several years ago, the middle school building was condemned and the school district, lacking the resources to fix it, shuttered it instead. Now many in the neighborhood ride two public buses 45 minutes to Harding Middle School, one of the lowest-ranked in the city, or attend Woodrow Wilson Middle School, at the northern reach of Oxford Circle, near Northeast High.
Sending 11-year-olds to commute by bus can be daunting for parents, says Hilderbrand Pelzer, Carnell Elementary’s principal since 2012, especially since 90 percent of Carnell elementary students walk to school. But as of now, there are no plans for the school district to open a new middle school nearby. Instead, Carnell, working with OCCCDA, has increased outreach to help parents decide where to send kids next. That’s included special workshops for immigrant parents navigating the system, in addition to other quarterly workshops for non-English-speaking parents about curriculum, counseling and other issues.
The former Laura H. Carnell Middle School sits shuttered.
Pelzer says that while Carnell’s student population is half African-American, the number of countries and languages represented there continues to rise.
“This is encouraging for Carnell’s future. It’s also challenging,” he says. “We have to make certain as a school that we have resources in place to support our new families, our immigrant families, where some parents do not speak English as their first language, and we have some students enrolled in our school that do not speak English as their first language.”
Amin, with OCCCDA’s assistance, helped her daughter apply to a charter school. She’ll do the same for high school. Fels High, directly behind Amin’s house, is also among Philadelphia’s lowest-ranked schools.
Despite the support Amin, who’s 50, has found at the resource center, life can be isolating, she says.
She left the father of her daughters when he returned to Morocco and married another woman, planning to maintain both marriages. “He imagined that I never go to the courts because I afraid of him, and that’s why he do what he like,” says Amin. While he was away, she filed for divorce. Now, she’s raising the girls alone.
Amin has two neighbors she can rely on, and some OCCCDA staff, but she goes back and forth on whether she feels part of a community. “I have my neighbor, two neighbor,” she says. “I talk with them, that’s it.” But she also says she’s always gotten help when she asked, first in an English language program that also helped her find her job at the day care, then from OCCCDA. She plans to stay in Philadelphia so her daughters can finish their education. Her eyes light up when she talks about the girls and their potential here. Chams hopes to be a doctor, Aya an astronaut. Already they’ve lived more of their lives in the U.S. than elsewhere.
“I come for my kids. I need to stay with them until they get good diplomas and good jobs. I can’t move,” she says.
“Nadia, how long have you been in the U.S.?” asks Theresa Leduna, teaching an early morning English language class for adults at the Family Resource Center.
Nadia is shy — it’s her first day in class; she looks to the two Haitian men she has just met and with whom she shares a language. One of the men prompts her, murmuring, in Creole. “Eight months,” she says. She’s the newest American in a room full of immigrants: One woman moved from Morocco 10 years ago, another five years, but most of the students have been here five years or less.
Theresa Leduna teaches an English language class for adults at the Family Resource Center.
“Do you have family here?” Leduna continues. Nadia nods, her shoulders hunched, smiling tightly. Most of the students do, that’s why they chose Philadelphia. “It’s so much easier when you have family in a place,” Leduna says, smiling back at her young student.
Leduna has been in the U.S. just about 15 years herself, and in Philadelphia just three. When her mother moved from the Philippines to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Georgia, Leduna, in college and nearly 21 at the time, had the chance to join the family. She came in search of the American dream and all that, she says. When Leduna married a man with family in Philadelphia, they moved to the suburbs, but it felt, she says, “unhealthy” there, lonely. They moved into Philadelphia to be closer to the Oxford Circle Mennonite Church.
“I really wanted to be a part of the community,” she says. In the Northeast, “You start noticing something. You notice the diversity. You notice the public schools. You start dreaming for your community, what could be better.” Teaching ELL, says Leduna, “[has] fueled my own dreams.”
“Even though we come from very different backgrounds and cultures, we come [to this class] as immigrants so we understand each other’s struggles and fears,” she says. The day after the 2016 presidential election, some students came in with their eyes puffy from crying. The class talked about what had happened. In the coming weeks, the Family Resource Center brought in the New Sanctuary Movement and had an immigration lawyer educate students about their rights. One student, though, has already had to return to Sudan. The ELL class had a goodbye party for her.
After nearly two decades in the U.S., Leduna admits the American dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but sees Philadelphia as an exceptionally open city. Her students have similarly mixed views on their new home. One woman, who moved from Morocco to Atlanta and then to Philadelphia for her husband’s work, says she preferred Georgia. It’s cleaner there. “The mice!” she exclaims of Philadelphia, wrinkling her nose. When I ask if they feel they’ve developed a community here, another woman in a headscarf who had been in the city for five months, shakes her head. “I just stay home,” she says.
In OCCCDA’s first years, the organization focused on the first needs of many new immigrant families: childcare, after-school programs, English language classes. Now the church is looking to create opportunities for Muslim women like her who want to work, but also stay true to their cultures and their husbands’ expectations. The organization is considering opening a thrift store on Castor Avenue or Cottman Avenue, the neighborhood’s main commercial corridors, where women could sort donations away from public view. They already have access to a commercial kitchen that could support a catering business. One Moroccan student says she dreams of opening a bakery.
“If you want a child to thrive, how about working hard to ensure that the mother and the father, the parents and/or caretakers, have access to the opportunity to make a living that will allow them to be self-sufficient and able to invest in their children’s lives,” says Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, who represents Oxford Circle. Parker taught ELL to both children and adults before becoming a City Council member and has, since being elected, prioritized creating opportunities for immigrants. In addition to job training, Parker especially wants immigrant business owners along the neighborhood’s commercial corridors to be able to access storefront improvement funding and other available programs. She and her staff are talking about creating a mobile ELL team that can offer classes around her district. In a unique approach, she talks about enlisting children — who often encounter English all day long at school — in co-teaching their parents.
Estella Edward and Gabrielle Acuedo practice the song they'll sing at a graduation ceremony for their after-school program for refugee students.
The need is great. The city’s Office of Immigrant Affairs estimates that up to 43 percent of Oxford Circle residents don’t speak English. OCCCDA offers classes in the mornings and evenings several days a week, but they can’t always provide childcare, a barrier for some — particularly women. When HIAS, the refugee resettlement agency, began offering childcare at their classes, women’s participation increased, says Harteg. But those courses are only for clients in the resettlement period. Once that ended for clients, Harteg often found herself calling around to churches and other groups to find informal classes.
As of June, that task might be a little easier. The Immigrant Affairs and Adult Education offices partnered to create a new interactive map that displays all ELL classes in the city, overlaid with the percentage of non-English speakers in the neighborhood. Oxford Circle has just two classes listed: OCCCDA’s and the Center for Literacy’s. Miriam Enriquez, director of the Office of Immigrant Affairs, says in addition to pointing potential students to existing classes, the map is intended to highlight where more are needed. Though nearly all of the Northeast is a splotch of deep purple, indicating over a third of residents are non-English-speaking, the whole area hosts barely more classes than Center City, where rates are much lower.
Antonio, who was a teacher in Guatemala, sits in an ELL class.
Since arriving in Philadelphia last year, he’s worked in a restaurant and cleaning the cafeteria at Alvernia University in North Philadelphia. In Guatemala, he taught children ranging from kindergarten to middle school in one classroom, rising at 4 a.m. to walk to school, a trip that took over two hours, uphill.
Here, he says, he’s amazed at the glut of “technology” in American schools. But when he gives examples, he cites supplies most would take for granted: paper, notebooks. “For teachers, it’s excellent,” he says.
He’d like to go back to college to study biology, but it’s too expensive to go to school here in the U.S. “I don’t like work, I like more school,” he laughs. But for now, he’s working long hours — often overnight — attending ELL classes twice a week, and working on his English on his own. Over a bowl of alphabet soup at a diner where he’s known to all the staff, Antonio tells me he’s reading a version of the Bible in English and in Spanish. One day, he wants to teach English back home. But if he leaves the U.S., Antonio, who is undocumented, doesn’t know if he can return.
Rushana Masimova sits on the steps of Northeast High last spring.
“If we knew other people in the U.S., they would put us with our friends and relatives. But we don’t know anybody so they choose Philadelphia because it is the cheaper city and there are a lot of Russian people, I think. They thought it was going to be easier to us to live in Philadelphia,” she says.
It hasn’t been quite so easy. Masimova’s mother wears a headscarf, but her employers at a day care told her she had to choose between scarf and job. She quit, and was out of work for three months, during which time the family struggled to pay rent. Back in Tajikistan, she’d been a journalist for Radio Liberty, where her writing put her on the wrong side of the government. After death threats, to her and the children, and after her husband abandoned the family out of fear, the family, which also includes Masimova’s two younger siblings, fled for Turkey. They stayed there four years until a refugee agency called to say they’d been accepted to come to America.
“I was happy, and then I was sad,” says Masimova of the news. “Because my childhood, everything was in Turkey. And I got a lot of experience in Turkey, I learned everything.”
Including Turkish, and a new view on Islam. “I thought that Islam is something like bombing, killing, but when we went to Turkey, they were explaining that Islam is not killing. God says don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t do bad stuff. Islam is peace, be friendly and other stuff,” she says. In Tajikistan, religious expression is deeply curtailed. Women cannot go to the mosque after the age of 18, and need permission to wear a headscarf. “You have a lot of rights in Turkey.”
Now, Masimova is looking for a summer job. She has her driver’s permit, but she needs an instructor; her mom is too new of a driver in the U.S. to teach her legally. “The car is your food in America. If you don’t have car, you can’t get anywhere on time,” she says. It’s especially difficult in neighborhoods like Oxford Circle. According to Reinvestment Fund data, the average Philadelphia block is .7 miles from the nearest transit line, but the average block in a high foreign-born middle market like this one is over a mile away.
Right now, Masimova can walk to school. Next year, she’ll take a bus to a train to get downtown to the Community College of Philadelphia. She’s already writing stories for the school paper, and wants to study journalism.
In Tajikistan, she says, knowledge is not valued in women. “But Turkey is different and America is different. That’s why I like those two countries. Because you are feeling you are free,” she says.
Perhaps her most eye-opening education since arriving in Philadelphia has been about U.S. history. “When I came to America I thought that America didn’t have any problems from before. Because if you going to look around, America doesn’t have many problems and other countries does. And when I come and read American history, I think, what, this happened in America?” She knew about slavery, but not how long African-Americans had been denied voting and other basic rights. “I just surprised when I heard about this stuff, and crisis in America. I never would believe in it if I was somewhere outside America.”
Does she think she’ll ever feel American? “I hope so! Because America is supporting us a lot. America is helping us with everything. Why not, right? Because America is everyone’s country. Nobody telling that you are Turkish, you’re Uzbek, you’re something else. We are all Americans.”
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.
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