Youssef Farhat is a University of Dayton graduate student who wants to be an immigrant in the future. He has consulted with welcome Dayton and works at the UD Human Rights Center. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
Photo: Ty Greenlees
Photo: Ty Greenlees

Dayton’s immigrant population doubles: ‘You can get a better life’

Dayton’s immigrant population has more than doubled since the mid-2000s, and city leaders say their immigrant-friendly efforts are paying off.

The overall numbers are relatively small, but the pace of growth is among the best in the nation, according to a Dayton Daily News analysis of data from the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey.

Of the more than 300 U.S. cities with populations of 100,000 or more, only a handful have experienced a faster percentage growth in their foreign-born populations than Dayton.

“There’s a lot of opportunities here,” Abdi Ahmed, a 42-year-old Somalian refugee who moved to the area in the mid-2000s. “You can get a better life.”

People born outside of the U.S. typically choose where to move to based on economic opportunities and family connections, according to Theo Majka, a sociology professor with the University of Dayton. The friendliness or openness of the community is a much less important consideration, he said, but could help immigrants stay longer.

The growth comes as immigration is debated nationally and as the Trump administration has cracked down on so-called sanctuary cities, seeking to compel their help with illegal immigration. Officials here say Dayton is not a sanctuary city.

Since the mid-2000s, Dayton’s immigrant population has roughly doubled to more than 7,000 people in 2016, according to Census data.

The city had a population of about 140,000 in 2016. The population, after years of declines, has finally leveled off, thanks in part to the growth in foreign-born residents.

Dayton officially became a welcoming and immigrant-friendly community in 2011, and supporters said those efforts were a way to stem population and job losses.

Dayton has added and expanded programs to translate important documents into other languages and teach residents English.

The city has created a variety of events and activities intended to teach native-born residents about the lives and cultures of their immigrant peers and have members of both groups interact.

Immigrants, like young people, are drawn to cities like Dayton that embrace people of all backgrounds and offer an authentic urban environment, with a low cost of living and a high quality of life, said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.

“Clearly, we are seeing the growth because we were at such a low number 10 years ago, but also, we’ve really championed this idea of inclusivity and diversity, which is really paying off,” she said.

About a decade ago, immigrants accounted for just about 2.7 percent of Dayton’s residents.

They now account for 5 percent of the city’s overall population, which puts Dayton among the least diverse major or medium-sized U.S. cities for international residents.

But Dayton’s welcoming policies have received national acclaim.

Dayton recently was recognized as the first city in the nation to be a “Certified Welcoming” community by Welcoming America. The national organization did a “rigorous independent audit” to determine if Dayton’s policies, programs and partnerships supported inclusivity, from language access services to hiring practices.

Dayton now has one of the largest Ahiska Turkish populations in the nation, at least per capita.

Originally, a handful of families fleeing violence and oppression in their homeland were placed in the city by the U.S. State Department.

Today, about 400 families — comprised of about 2,000 to 3,000 Turkish people — live in the Dayton area.

Turkish residents have fixed up many deteriorating homes in Old North Dayton and have started new businesses in trucking and logistics.

Immigrants, through their entrepreneurship and investments in their homes and properties, have stabilized and beautified local neighborhoods that were sliding into disrepair, city leaders said.

Not all Dayton residents have been supportive. More than one in 10 Dayton residents would not support an immigrant family moving in next door, and another one in three say it depends if they’d be supportive, according to a citywide survey.

Gerald Ramey Jr., 52, who has lived in Old North Dayton for decades, said many Turks have not been good neighbors, saying they speed on residential streets and have been hostile when he has approached them to slow down.

Ramey said he and his relatives have almost been hit multiple times by Turks.

“It’s like they think the laws here in Dayton don’t apply to them and they can pretty much do whatever they want,” he said.

Dayton also has been the landing spot for a growing number of refugees from Africa.

Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley resettles between 250 and 400 refugees a year. In the last four years, about 40 percent of the refugees came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Abdi Ahmed is a refugee who moved to Dayton after living in a Kenyan refugee camp for eight years. He moved here because of work opportunities and because some friends recommended it as a nice place to live.

He said he likes the Dayton area because it’s quiet and has treated him well.

Ahmed’s family, including his brothers, wife and children, remain in the refugee camp, but are working through the resettlement process in the hopes of making it to Dayton.

Dayton’s welcoming policies on their own are unlikely to convince immigrants to relocate to the area, but they may help tip the scales in the city’s favor, said UD’s Majka.

The policies may have indirectly impacted the city’s immigrant population, Majka said, possibly by helping retain immigrants who move here by making them feel wanted.

The real magnets for immigrants are jobs and family, as well as secondary factors like cost of living and real estate costs, he said.

“I don’t think Welcome Dayton — or anything in particular that governments can do — would really get immigrants to relocate to a particular place,” he said.

Majka also said having an established immigrant community, like the Ahiska Turks, will be a draw for other members of those groups.

Dayton benefits from international exchange students but can do better to retain them by educating local employers and institutions about how they can invest in international talent and what the foreign-born workers have to offer, said Youssef Farhat, a 27-year-old graduate student at the University of Dayton from Lebanon.

Farhat earned his master’s in public administration at UD, is working toward a master’s in business administration and works at the school’s Human Rights Center. Farhat hopes to immigrate to Dayton in the future.

Immigrants, refugees and exchange students want a community they can relate to and they feel comfortable in, and Dayton is a compassionate place for the most part that offers meaningful support networks, he said.

Farhat said Dayton has talent, growing economic opportunities and community investments, and has seen a resurgence in many neighborhoods, including his own in South Park.

Still, Farhat said he actively chose to engage with the Dayton community, and one of the largest challenges is getting immigrants, refugees and exchange students to make that initial contact and social connections.

“Dayton is welcoming if you look for it, so you have to do a little bit of a search,” he said. “It’s not difficult to find, but you have to make an effort.”

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