Written by Tom Gordon
Photos by Beau Gustafson
This story is brought to you through a partnership between B-Metro and BirminghamWatch.
About 18 months ago, when St. Symeon Orthodox Church was building a new sanctuary at its Highland Park site, its rector got a reminder of how much Birmingham has changed since he first came here in the 1980s.
A team of Hispanic workers did the plaster work on the dome inside the new building. They also did the exterior stonework. “They just were tremendously diligent and acquitted themselves so impressively that you couldn’t help but take notice,” says the Rev. Alexander Fecanin, himself the grandson of Russian immigrants. Fecanin also took notice when another team arrived to install the sanctuary’s shiny new hardwood floor. It consisted of a man originally from Romania, along with his son. In the grand scheme of diverse things, the construction project at St. Symeon was a small blip on the radar. But it was yet another marker on the upward climbing graph charting the Birmingham area’s ever greater diversity. “Alabama is no longer…or Birmingham is not a black or white conversation,” says local attorney Freddy Rubio, who came here as an English-challenged Puerto Rican in 1991. “It is white, black, and other, [and] there’s nothing that we can do to stop that.”
The changes, while not as dramatic as they have been in other major metropolitan areas around the South, have been significant. In 1980, Jefferson, Shelby, and the three other counties that made up the Birmingham Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area had slightly more than 8,000 foreign-born residents. More than half of them were from Europe and Asia, while about 11 percent came from North and Central America. Listed among that group were 52 Mexicans.
Since then, Hispanics have figured prominently in the Birmingham area’s ethnic growth, but so have other groups. Recent census data shows Jefferson County with about 26,000 foreign-born residents and more than 25,000 Hispanic or Latino residents; the Asian population was more than 10,000. In Birmingham, the 2010 census showed more than 7,600 Hispanics, seven times the figure for 1990. Over the same 20-year period, the city’s Asian population has gone up more than 40 percent to more than 2,100.
In 1982, a youngster named Randy Christian joined the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department. Today, Christian is the department’s chief deputy and spokesman. He says the presence of Mexicans and other Hispanics is an ever-growing fact of life, and so are advocacy groups like the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama. “Gosh, when I started we didn’t have near the language challenges…in our communities that we do now,” Christian said in an email. “In fact, I would say we didn’t have any I can recall—zilch, zero. We had some whose English could be a challenge to understand sometimes, but that was usually only alcohol-related. Now fast forward 30 plus years, and our country and community have changed dramatically and it has had to be addressed. Obviously, our Hispanic-speaking community has grown exponentially. We must be able to communicate with them, and they with us.” The sheriff’s department now has nine Spanish-speaking deputies, Christian says, and “they are stretched thin.”
Lest we forget, ethnic diversity has been a fact of life in the Birmingham area since the Magic City was founded in 1871. Back then, it just had a different face. In the city’s young and booming days, Greeks, Lebanese, Italians, and Slavs, among others, showed up to work in its mines and mills, or operate food carts, grocery stores, and hotels. By 1920, Jefferson County alone had more Italians than Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee had within their respective boundaries. And just as some Muslims, Hispanics, and other new arrivals sometimes experience today, the original immigrants, because of their skin tones, religions, or cultures would sometimes earn enmity or distrust from members of the native-born population.
In the 20th century’s first decades, the immigrant presence, not just here, but elsewhere in the country, helped spur the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. In the early 1920s, when census numbers at the start of that decade listed more than 17,000 “foreign-born whites” in his state, a Birmingham lawyer named Hugo Black played the race card in successfully defending the killer of a Catholic priest, the Rev. James Coyle, who had conducted a marriage service for the killer’s daughter and a Puerto Rican man. Black, who would become a U.S. senator and a distinguished U.S. Supreme Court justice, then briefly joined the Klan to boost his political prospects. Later, as a senator, he worried about “the confusion of alien tongues clamoring among themselves as to their rights in our country,” and called for a five-year halt to all immigration.
In 1924, Congress passed a quota law to greatly reduce immigration, particularly that from southern and eastern Europe, and to pretty much shut out immigrants from Asia. In the decades since, other measures have taken the place of that 1924 law, in particular a bill that Congress passed in 1965, which has opened up the country to a lot of the diversity we see today.
But today, in an atmosphere still influenced by the 9/11 terror attacks and more recent incidents, like the mass shooting by a Muslim couple in San Bernadino, Calif., the country and the state of Alabama are still debating the pros and cons of immigration.
In 2011, in response to Hispanic population growth around Birmingham and elsewhere in the state, the Alabama Legislature passed a highly restrictive immigration law to force undocumented immigrants to leave the state. Some did, but courts struck down many of the law’s provisions and it is mostly ineffective today. Then, in 2014, state voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to “prohibit the application of foreign law in violation of rights guaranteed natural citizens by the United States and Alabama Constitutions, and the statutes, laws, and public policy thereof.” The amendment’s chief sponsor, state Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, had earlier proposed an amendment to keep Islamic Sharia law out of Alabama courts.
The Birmingham area has the largest foreign-born population in Alabama, though its percentage is not as great as that in the larger Nashville, Charlotte, and Atlanta metro areas, and even in metro Montgomery and Huntsville. While census numbers are a major indicator of metro Birmingham’s greater diversity, there also are micro-measurements, such as the number of certain kinds of names. In the city of Birmingham, for example, the 1990 Polk City Directory has four listings for the Hispanic surname Hernandez. The 2015 directory has 50. In 1990, there are 20 listings for the Vietnamese surname Nguyen; in 2015, there are 63. In 1990, the directory has 34 listings for the South Asian surname Patel; in 2015, it has 95.
If you have observant eyes and listening ears and make your way around the area, you can see the changes. Take a drive down the commercial corridors of West Valley Avenue in Homewood, Lorna Road in Hoover, Green Springs Highway in Birmingham and Homewood, or head north on Alabama 79 through Tarrant and Pinson toward the Blount County line. There are restaurants, clothing stores, barbershops, gas stations, auto repair shops, small grocery stores, and, on Green Springs, a big supermarket named Mi Pueblo, all operated by people who, as we Alabamians like to say, “aren’t from around here.”
Well, maybe not originally.
If that doesn’t satisfy your curiosity, go to the Hoover Library for an English as a second language class (ESL). The number of countries represented by its students has been more numerous than the number of players starting on the offensive and defensive units on the Alabama football team. Last fall’s classes had students from 27 different countries, including China, Iran, Jordan, and Ukraine.
Or go to Jefferson County Manager Tony Petelos’s home in Hoover’s Lake Cyrus community. This son of Greek immigrants, who grew up in Ensley, has a neighbor on one side who is from India, a neighbor on the other side from Pakistan, and a neighbor across the street who hails from Venezuela. Head west on I-20/59 to Fairfield, and at midday on Fridays, you can enter a former commercial store front on Gary Avenue that is now a masjid, or mosque. Many of its worshippers, like a man named Oumar Diallo, come from the West African country of Guinea. Like many Hispanics here and many of his fellow Africans, Diallo, who works at Birmingham’s Fish Market, sends some of his earnings home to relatives in his home country. “Anytime it’s possible, depending on their needs,” Diallo says.
Continue on to downtown Bessemer, and just down the street from the Bright Star restaurant—founded by a Greek and run by the Koikos family today—is a Regions Bank branch office. The bank’s manager, Edward Lubembe, is from Kenya and has been here 14 years. He grew up listening with his late father to cassettes of speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. After he came here, Lubembe sought to learn more local history, and so he spent time at the Civil Rights Institute. The visit gave him much to ponder, about Birmingham then and Birmingham now. “For me to be here and interact with everybody the way I am compared to how it would have been 60–70 years ago, I looked at that as major progress,” Lubembe says.
Before we resume our journey, here are some nuggets worth noting:
• According to the Birmingham Business Alliance, “more than 70 foreign-based companies…have operations here in the Birmingham region (including Mercedes and Honda and some of their suppliers).”
• Last year, at an in-house gathering held at the Regions Center downtown and at the company’s operations center in Hoover, Regions employees, or “associates,” were asked to write, in their native tongue, one of the company’s core values on erasable boards. A subsequent tally of the native languages spoken by those who attended the gatherings listed 52, including some spoken in parts of India such as Tamil and Gujarati.
• At another of the area’s major financial institutions, BBVA Compass, Dwight Julbert, executive director of BBVA’s Talent Partner Services, says the employee ranks include people “from more than 15 countries,” among them Spain, China, Nigeria, and India.
• At the Shelby-Hoover campus of Jefferson State Community College, Saturdays have turned part of that campus into a little corner of Japan. Classes on Japanese language and culture are held there for children of Japanese expats, many of whom work at the Honda plant 45 miles to the east.
• According to the American Immigration Council, Alabama saw nearly 8,000 new immigrants open businesses from 2006 to 2010. In 2010, according to the council, nearly 5 percent “of all business owners in the state were foreign-born.”
• Alabama’s Hispanic population jumped 158 percent from 2000 to 2011, according to the Pew Research Center, moving from 72,152 to 186,209, and more than half of the Hispanics were born in the U.S. Census figures indicate the Hispanic population is higher than that 2011 total now. If we round the figure off to about 200,000, then the seven counties in the Birmingham-Hoover Metropolitan Statistical Area, with about 50,000 Hispanics, contain about 25 percent of that total. In Jefferson County, according to a report from the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Alabama Rural Health Association, the Hispanic population jumped 865 percent from 1990 to 2011.
• While many immigrants are doing well economically here, more than a few are not. A report from city-data.com states that 19 percent of Jefferson County residents were living in poverty in 2013. The percentage was nearly double for Hispanics.
• From 2001 to 2015, the Jefferson County Health Department saw a 5 percent drop in its black patient population and a 2 percent drop in its white patient population. By contrast, the Hispanic patient population, though starting from a smaller numerical base, has jumped 156 percent.
Now let’s head back to Birmingham, get on I-65 north and take the exit that takes us to Carver High School. On Sundays, the school athletic field is soccer land, with Hispanic men’s teams playing throughout the day. Among the spectators are likely to be members of Carver’s own, almost entirely Hispanic varsity soccer team. The men’s teams play in a league organized about 15 years ago by Ernesto Valladares, a native of the Mexican resort town of Acapulco and a Birmingham area resident since 1998. Valladares, who works for a local produce company, said the number of teams in the league grew to about 80 but dropped to about 40 after the passage of the state’s immigration law. Many players, Valladares says, simply “disappeared.” Today, however, players are returning, and the league is again growing, he says.
Resume the trip north on I-65 and it’s only a few miles to Fultondale Elementary School. There, principal Frances Finney and her staff are working to establish what Finney calls a “culture of community” among about 780 students. About 30 percent of the students are white; another 30 percent are Hispanic, and the rest are African-American. “Helping the child grow academically and socially and build on his or her strengths is what is more important than the color of their skin,” Finney says. Finney knows a little about diversity from personal experience. Her Birmingham-born father, Joseph Ritchey, was the son of Lebanese immigrants and helped run the grocery store his father operated in Woodlawn and then helped operate Kelly’s Hamburgers at the old Eastwood Mall. Because of his dark skin, he was the periodic target of racial slurs from other kids but was constantly pushed by his parents to be an American and act like one. He passed that attitude onto his daughter, and that meant that while Lebanese religious and culinary culture are part of her makeup, being able to speak Arabic is not. “I hate that now,” Finney says.
The diversity at Fultondale Elementary, due in part to Hispanics moving to the sprawling 100 Oaks Mobile Home Park, brings us to another set of numbers—school enrollment data that illustrates our area’s growing ethnic rainbow. Let’s start with Birmingham. In the 1995–’96 academic year, the city school system had nearly 42,000 students; among them were 58 Hispanics and 137 Asians. Last fall, the system reported 24,010 students, and while the Asian number had dropped to 37, the Hispanic number had jumped to 1,321.
While the Birmingham system has seen its enrollment plummet and its diversity increase, a number of surrounding systems have seen growth and an accompanying rise in their diversity, and even some systems in decline have seen small changes in the composition of their student populations. In ’95–’96, Hoover had 141 Asian and 65 Hispanic students. This year, those numbers are 929 and 1,000, respectively. Twenty years ago, Homewood had 70 Asian and 47 Hispanic students. This year, its Asian count is 105; its Hispanic count, 476. Vestavia Hills had 130 Asians and no numerical listing for Hispanics 20 years ago. Now its Asian enrollment is listed at 421; its Hispanic enrollment, 278.
The Jefferson County system, which has lost students over the past 20 years largely because some communities set up their own school operations, nonetheless has seen its Asian enrollment go from 133 to 208 and its Hispanic enrollment leap from 117 to 2,899. Even the small Tarrant system, which gave no numerical listings for Hispanics or Asians in ’95–’96, listed 263 Hispanics for the current year.
A big sleeping dog, one that snores loudly, has been along for this ride, and it is as big a reason as any for why the area has four cricket teams now instead of just the one a few years ago; why the area has not just one, but two Turkish American cultural groups; why the Birmingham area now has six mosques and a Sikh temple; why the Hindu temple in Pelham has been adding more images of deities reflecting the worship preferences of its growing number of devotees; and why Birmingham has a multifaceted Chinese presence that was proudly on display at last month’s Chinese New Year’s Festival in Boutwell Auditorium. That dog answers to the name of UAB. “UAB is an internationally known university that recruits faculty, students, and researchers from all over the world,” says Lauren Cooper, vice president of communications for the Birmingham Business Alliance.
“UAB is probably the most effective recruiter for the Muslim community here,” asserts Ashfaq Taufique, a retired mechanical engineer from Pakistan who is president of the Birmingham Islamic Society. It’s hard to dispute these statements, particularly when you can go to the main concourse on the second floor of UAB Hospital’s North Pavilion and feel like you’ve just entered a southern branch of the United Nations. Then you can take just a few minutes to look at the faculty listings in the UAB School of Medicine and you’ll quickly find physicians, researchers, and instructors from such countries as Colombia, Egypt, India, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, Puerto Rico, Taiwan, Thailand, and Ukraine.
Manisha Vaidya, a clinical dietician at UAB Hospital since 2002, grew up in the Indian city of Nashik, northeast of Mumbai, and said the Indian population has grown in the Birmingham area partly because of the opportunities offered at the medical complex and Southern Research, but also because of the pace of life here. “Birmingham is a nice city to stay in, not too crowded, but not too slow, also,” says Vaidya, who lives in Hoover and has reared two sons here. Living in a place like Atlanta, she says, means dealing with constant traffic and “too much planning to do something, but here in Birmingham, it’s not that difficult.”
“It’s really a home now,” says Vaidya’s friend Beena Shah, who sells real estate, and more than half of her clients are Indian. Shah has lived in the Birmingham area since 1995. Her husband, Rajen, who helped organize the local cricket league, is a systems analyst at Protective Life. The couple has two sons and the oldest, Jaysal, 20, is majoring in aerospace engineering at Auburn, where he plays clarinet in the AU marching band. An Auburn sticker is on the back of his mother’s business Audi. Shah, 47, says Jaysal and his younger brother, Rahul, 16, a student and talented saxophone player at Hoover High School, “are more integrated in this local society than they are in the Indian community,” and that’s because the Indian community was much smaller when they were growing up. “They were born before some growth occurred,” Shah explains.
There also are more Muslim families, she says, many from Pakistan who operate retail businesses. “I see a lot of them moving from Atlanta to Birmingham because buying a gas station is cheaper here than it is in Atlanta,” Shah says. “The lifestyle is better here than Atlanta, and you make more profit here than you do in Atlanta.” But that growing South Asian presence in the area is not coming by leaps and bounds because the area does not have as many skilled job opportunities as areas like Houston and Atlanta, she says. In addition, many employers and mortgage lenders are not well versed in working with prospective residents who are coming in with work visas. “That’s been quite a challenge,” Shah says. “It’s still a challenge.”
Challenges of all kinds are a given for newcomers to any area, and they are compounded when the newcomers cannot readily speak the language. The most recent census figures show that across the U.S., 21 percent of those who are 5 years of age and older do not speak English at home. In Jefferson County, that figure is 6 percent, or nearly 40,000 people. Much of that number is concentrated in several cities. In Hoover, with approximately 85,000 residents, some of whom are in Shelby County, the no-English-at-home percentage is 12 percent. That represents slightly more than 10,000 people. To the north in Fultondale, which has experienced a large Hispanic influx, the no-English-at-home percentage is 14 percent, which represents more than 1,200 people. (Last fall, Fultondale Elementary started evening English classes for parents of its Hispanic students. To the delight of school officials, an average of about 60 adults attended each class.) In Homewood, with about 26,000 residents, the no-English-at-home percentage is 9 percent, which represents almost 2,400. Birmingham has a lower percentage of no-English-at-home folks, just 5 percent, but because of its larger population, that figure represents more than 10,600 residents. To put these numbers in perspective, the total of non-English speakers at home in Hoover, Fultondale, Homewood, and Birmingham is well above the number of foreign-born whites—15,710—who were living in all of Alabama in 1930. And fewer than 100 were listed as being from Mexico.
Time to head south again on I-65. If we take the exit that puts us on Green Springs Avenue, we will pass by a monument to Birmingham’s older ethnic history, the Cedars Club. The original Cedars Club was built in 1905 by and for members of the city’s Lebanese community, and Frances Finney’s Lebanese-American father and his immigrant parents attended events there. Today, the events held at the current incarnation of the club include 15th birthday celebrations known as quinceañeras for local Latino girls. “That one gets rented a lot,” says Orlando Rosa, operations manager and program director for the area’s two Hispanic radio stations, La Jefa at 98.3 FM and JUAN 1500 AM.
Back on the road we go, this time to the Shelby-Hoover campus of Jefferson State Community College. Besides those who use its facilities for Japanese cultural classes, the campus has 177 international students, and 124 of them are taking English classes offered through the adult education program. Their countries of origin include Costa Rica, Sudan, Vietnam, and Yemen.
During regular class days, you can see Muslim women, identifiable by their head scarves, in the flow of students. Two of them, Areej and Alaa, are the sisters of Ahmad Antar, another Jeff State student who is hoping to get an electrical engineering degree from a four-year school.
Ahmad; his sisters; his father, Sameer; and his mother, Maysoon, immigrated to the U.S. five years ago. Two months back, they all took the oath of U.S. citizenship. They are Palestinians, but had been living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), part of a diaspora that is scattered around the Middle East and beyond. They now live under one roof in Hoover, and they have relatives here, including Sameer’s parents and his brother Azaam, who runs a small car dealership and repair shop. That’s what Sameer—his customers call him Sam—does as well. Away from school, Ahmad also works at a shop where he programs and repairs electronic devices, and his sisters sell pillows and other gift items at a kiosk owned by a Muslim man in the Riverchase Galleria.
Ahmad, 20, chuckled recently as he discussed how life has changed for him here. It still is a challenge for him to understand others, including his teachers, or make himself clear to them. He studied British English in the UAE, not the kind spoken in Alabama. If non-Muslim friends ask him to join them at a bar, he does not do so because for religious and personal reasons, he does not drink. But if they want to go get some Mexican food—well, he never had it until he came here, but now he loves tacos and quesadillas. He also has been here long enough to square the reality of American life against the rumors he had heard before he arrived. “We heard these rumors—you go to the U.S., you’ll see this, you’ll see that,” he says. “And one of them (was) you can lick money from the street, which is nonsense.
“If you work hard, you’ll make it,” he continues. “Which is not the same in [the UAE].”
More than a week later, at the Friday prayer service at the Fairfield masjid, the prayer leader told his fellow Muslims to work hard at making small gestures to counter the impressions that non-Muslims may have of Islam and its practitioners because of the anti-Muslim rhetoric from politicians and because of the violence and terrorism committed by Muslim extremists.
“How many people did you meet today and what kind of impression did you leave them with?” Adil Patel asked his listeners. “A good impression? A bad impression? Or no impression? And this is the impression they most likely will have about Islam because fact is, (for) a lot of people, you might be the only Muslim they know.”
Patel is 23, a graduate engineering student at UAB. He came here from Minnesota, and his parents are from India. After his sermon, he said he has not encountered any hostility himself, probably because he does not wear a head scarf and perhaps because he looks “ethnically ambiguous.” But these days, many Muslims, especially young ones, fear the climate is not going to become friendly anytime soon, and “you shouldn’t lose hope that things can’t change, and we shouldn’t be afraid to be Muslim,” Patel says. “We should be proud to be Muslim.”
A hundred years ago, during less than friendly times for them in Birmingham, Lebanese, Greek, Slavic, and Italian immigrants were probably giving similar pride-boosting pep talks to each other.
And their descendants are still here.
Returning to the roots of journalism
BirminghamWatch and its parent organization, Alabama Initiative for Independent Journalism, are newcomers to Birmingham’s news scene. I am pleased to introduce us to readers of B-Metro. This story features a BirminghamWatch/B-Metro collaboration examining the experience of immigrants in Birmingham and their influence on the city’s history, culture, and commerce. We want to bring more of that kind of journalism to Birmingham and Alabama readers.
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