Breaking the ice

Opening the conversation on Dayton’s immigrant story

 By Sarah Sidlow

Photo: Rwandan refugees Irene, David and Emanuel Gatanazi; photo: Bill Franz


Recently, the city of Dayton received national attention for attempting to do something revolutionary: loving thy neighbor. The New York Times and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” two cultural institutions for news and information, praised Dayton’s widespread efforts to reinvent itself as an “immigrant friendly city.”

Locally, there is another cultural institution that plans to highlight the story of immigration in Dayton, educate visitors about immigration reform and recognize some of the programs and organizations that have made major strides to make Dayton a place that many can be proud to call home.

On Sunday, Nov. 10, The Dayton International Peace Museum opened an exhibit called “Immigration: Our Shared Dream.” It will run for three months in the old Victorian building at 208 W. Monument St.

“We hope the exhibit will provide a fresh look at our history as a ‘nation of immigrants,’” said museum volunteer Bill Meers, “and that it will let us see that new immigrants – like those who came before – contribute to our economy and culture in many ways.”

Those who came before include Western and Eastern European immigrants, who first settled in Dayton in the early 1900s to fill the labor shortage created by the city’s expanding industry.

The Kossuth Colony

The Dayton Peace Museum will recognize the Kossuth Colony, established by Hungarian immigrants in the early 20th century in the neighborhood that is now Old North Dayton. They arrived in response to urging from an immigrant named Jacob Moskowitz, who brought more than 700 Hungarian workers to the city to work for Barney and Smith Car Works, a manufacturer of luxury wooden rail passenger cars. Soon, there was a small city on Leo Street. It held 40 houses and a large building called the Clubhouse, with stores, offices, banking facilities and a beer hall. It was surrounded by a 12-foot wooden fence and guarded by a watchman.

The decline of the Kossuth Colony coincided with the flood of 1913, which wiped away Barney and Smith: a familiar story for a city that describes its geography by whether or not it was underwater a hundred years ago. Today, a portion of the old Car Works lot is a Rumpke dumping site.

A two-block stretch of stone street denotes the former site of the Kossuth Colony, which today is dotted with elements decidedly American: a high-schooler’s car decorated with chalk for Belmont Cheer; a yard sign that reads “My Son is Army Strong.”

At the Peace Museum, the Kossuth Colony will be recognized as an example of Dayton’s long and interesting history of immigrant communities. For the city, the site serves as a reminder that the story of immigration does not end when one chapter comes to a close.

The New Face of Old North Dayton

Since the mid-2000s, Old North Dayton has found itself in a welcomed state of repair. The area was rediscovered by Ahiska Turks, refugees from Russia who came in search of work, freedom and a place to raise their children. Now, upturned bricks and sagging porches are being rehabilitated – large ornate fences, tiers of beautiful garden plantings, lace curtains. Families, friends and neighbors congregate in driveways and on enclosed front porches. At least 200 homes have been recovered in the span of a decade.

The Turks benefitted from the low cost of houses in the area, a symptom of the hard decade from which Dayton is still recovering.

“We don’t like to owe anybody anything.” said Islom Shakhbandarov, a leader in the Turkish community. “So, the only way to achieve that is to own your home. So the way our people think is they better live in more affordable houses and spend their money on more important things like education, businesses.”

And the recovering city has benefited from the Turkish activity as well. Non-Turkish neighbors inspired by the activity have started fixing up their own homes.

“My neighbors started changing things, painting, that’s because they see that next door house looks excellent,” Shakhbandarov said. “It makes them feel better about their house.”

But the Turkish revitalization of the languishing Old North Dayton neighborhood is not the end of this immigrant story.

Just down the street from a new Turkish investment, bright with stucco walls and an impossibly lush garden, is La Michoacana, a mom-and-pop style Latino grocery store.

“We have these really cool centers here in a neighborhood that has a legacy of immigration,” said John Gower, Urban Design Coordinator in the Dayton City Manager’s office. “And through no marketing, we now have folks that are finding these places on their own, both Spanish-speaking folks and the Ahiska Turks.”

The narrative of immigration is being written every day in Dayton.

“And it’s probably not unlike any narrative of any other average Midwestern city,” Gower said.

Dayton hasn’t traditionally been considered a gateway city like Chicago, New York or Los Angeles. But it is the home of a strong population of secondary migrants, some lured here by the city’s crossroads location, at the intersection of I-70 and I-75.

Welcome Dayton

In the last few years, the city – on an upswing from a challenging decade – has taken on the task of reinventing itself: breathing new life into businesses and neighborhoods, repopulating homes and reshaping the cultural attitudes of acceptance.

A major push in this direction came in the form of the Welcome Dayton initiative – a community effort aimed at ensuring that Dayton becomes an “immigrant-friendly city.”

The plan was accepted unanimously by the Dayton City Commission just two years ago.

“It was shockingly anticlimactic,” City Commissioner Matt Joseph said. “I remember thinking I was proud, we got a unanimous vote on something that was pretty revolutionary, and good for the city.”

Welcome Dayton began with a relationship forged between Islom Shakhbandarov and Dayton Mayor Gary Leitzell.

“We looked at what [the Turks had] contributed to the community,” Leitzell said. “They weren’t asking for handouts, they were asking for help.”

There were 150 Turkish families – approximately 400 people – doing things to revitalize Old North Dayton. Clean, sturdy walls were going up. Now, more than 10 percent of the U.S. population of Ahiska Turks reside in the city of Dayton.

City officials have made it clear that Welcome Dayton is not a government program. Rather, in order for it to be successful, the initiative must be seen as a community effort.

And it’s been that way since its creation, a fact that Welcome Dayton Program Coordinator Melissa Bertolo attributes to the initiative’s early success.

“From the start, it involved the community through the community dialogues and conversations,” Bertolo said. “By being able to come and speak and have their concerns and doubts, and also their hopes and ambitions for this type of thing [voiced], I think that’s really important.”

Through relationships with community leaders, Welcome Dayton provides a network for existing programs, and makes them visible to immigrant communities. Things like language programs, job training and conversation tables are stepping out into the light. Everything from health and human services to social events like the Dayton World Soccer Games.

Because of its efforts, Dayton libraries now stock their shelves with foreign-language books. School teachers are taking courses to learn other languages. The League of Women Voters is translating voter registration forms. Hospitals, universities and Dayton Police are working to understand and encourage cultural diversity. Dayton Public Schools now has the highest percentage of foreign language speakers in the history of the city.

“That’s the next generation,” Joseph said. “They’re in second and third grade, they’re going to speak English like natives. They’re going to be the connection between their parents in the old country and us here.”

Initiatives like Welcome Dayton and the services that provide support for Dayton’s immigrant communities are the focus of the museum’s exhibit.

THE House of the People

Another such praiseworthy effort on display at the Peace Museum is The House of the People, a safe haven for Rwandan immigrants and refugees.

The structure began in the ’70s as a homeless haven, but since 1996 all those who have passed through the house – actually two houses, kitty-corner across Holt Street – have been Rwandan immigrants. It’s not a palace, but to asylum seekers escaping genocidal conditions, it’s a place to begin again.

Because of The House of the People, Dayton now boasts the largest concentration of Rwandans in the country. They come through refugee resettlements, or through the federal lottery placement system. Sometimes, they come running for their lives.

“I think that one of the attractive things about Dayton for immigrants is the sensible Midwestern approach of hard work and fairness,” said Kristine Ward, chairman of the board for House of the People.

A House partnership with Dayton MetroParks has brought a resident garden to the area. It’s work that helps connect the displaced Rwandans to their agrarian history.

But the House of the People is planting other seeds. Rwandans who have given up professional lives must begin again at the bottom, gain a footing in their new country, learn English and the skills needed to go to school. Even adjusting to the Midwestern winters can be difficult for Rwandans, accustomed as they are to the perpetual springtime climate of their native country.

Members of The House of the People hope to perform traditional dance at the Peace Museum sometime during the exhibit’s run.

“[With] the dancing, they have made an effort to keep their own culture among their community,” Ward said, “and to share with the whole Dayton community when they can.”

Our Global Neighbors

Other efforts are exploring new facets of the topic of immigration.

London Coe, the owner of Peace on Fifth in the Oregon District, is heading the Fair Trade Town Project, aimed at making Dayton a fair trade city. It’s a way, she believes, to bring the immigration conversation out of the darkness.

“Welcome Dayton is very much the breaking of bread, loving your neighbor, very golden rule oriented,” Coe said. “But the fair trade project’s part is putting your money where your values are – supporting efforts and movements that make people feel celebrated.”

She stocks fair trade chocolates, baskets and jewelry – selling ice-breakers of sorts, examples of other people’s culture, in the hopes of facilitating conversations between neighbors who may look different. Buying fair trade is an economic signature of the welcoming atmosphere Dayton is developing.

“It’s definitely a salute to those who are here, that we not only appreciate you being here, but we appreciate what’s happening in your home country,” Coe said.

She and her team are working in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo to push them through the process of becoming fair-trade cities. They’ve also partnered with Wright State University to make it a fair-trade university.

“They will reach out like neural pathways to one another,” Coe said, “so that our stance is wider.”

where do we go from here?

How far can those pathways stretch? While Dayton’s approach to immigration may be unique, its story is not uncommon in this nation of immigrants.

On the immigration score sheet, Dayton has benefitted from its small size, and its need to repopulate – the New York Times called it an “ailing Midwestern city.” And on the whole, it’s done well to offer a friendly climate to immigrants.

“I can say that it’s proven that people can change their mind,” Shakhbandarov said. “They know who we are and what we do.”

While many hope that Dayton can provide a guiding light for the rest of our country, supporters like London Coe know that it’s a long road ahead, and that the nation may not be ready to open its mind to the good that immigrants can do.

“We will become a test run,” Coe said. “Eventually, we will be a template of how it can be done, once people can move into a different way of thinking about immigration.”

And while Dayton has certainly adopted a more welcoming attitude towards immigrants,

there’s more work to be done, and more minds to change.

“I would like to see Dayton become the most immigrant friendly city in the U.S.,” Leitzell said. “Is that achievable? That’s up to the people.”


“Immigration: Our Shared Dream” will be on display starting Sunday, Nov. 17 through the next three months at the Dayton International Peace Museum, 208 W. Monument Ave. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Please call 937.227.3223 for more information. For more information on Welcome Dayton, please visit 


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