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Kansas City Gives Immigrants a Chance to Start Over

New waves of immigration are transforming cities across the United States, including places like Kansas City, Missouri, in the heart of the American Midwest. Kansas City has been a crossroads for migrants for more than a century-once drawing pioneers moving from east to west as well as African Americans traveling from south to north. Now it's become a magnet for people traveling much longer distances, and the result is a colorful new mix of cultures. VOA's Nancy Beardsley has more.

Kansas City is famous for jazz and barbecue, and you can find plenty of both in the city's historic market area, a collection of food vendors, shops and restaurants overlooking the Missouri River, but these days you'll find other sounds and tastes as wel.:

The Blue Nile restaurant does a lively business, serving lamb and vegetarian dishes to downtown office workers and Ethiopian immigrants homesick for their native cuisine. But when Daniel Fikru first opened his restaurant in another part of Kansas City in 1995, he says business was slow.

“Kansas City is really the heart of America, and people have their own way of eating, geared towards a traditional American diet. We had to take the food and promote it and educate people about Ethiopia and our culture. And now Kansas City is a more international city and our culture is getting to be one of the most popular,” he says.

Hispanics are the city's largest immigrant group, followed by Vietnamese who left their native country starting in the 1970s. Over the past decade, refugees fleeing other civil wars and upheavals in Bosnia, Africa and the Middle East have also flocked to the city. Many, like Ethiopian immigrant Daniel Fikru, are attracted to the area for its quality of life:

“Kansas City is not a crowded place. There's a lot of opportunity. Housing, education is affordable,” says Mr. Fikru.

The city also has an active support network for new arrivals. The Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) is one of the main agencies resettling immigrants and refugees in Kansas City. With a staff as diverse as the people it serves, JVS offers everything from immigration counseling to language classes to job assistance. That means it's not unusual to find a staffer like Martin Okbareke, a native of Nigeria, advising a client like Ring Yel, originally from Sudan, who's looking for a new job.

Karen Janas who directs the immigrant and refugee program at Jewish Vocational Service, says her agency resettled some 330 new arrivals in Kansas City last year. That included a large group of Somali Bantu.

“They were brought into Somalia and enslaved a couple hundred years ago, and they've kind of lived as an agricultural sub-class in Somalia. They've been in refugee camps for 10 to 15 years. They've lived a very primitive life style, and this is like being dropped off on another planet. Everything is different,” she explains.

Learning English is a special challenge, as many of the Bantu had no formal written training in any language. Refugee education specialist Carla Buchheit offers classes in basic language skills:

Carla's student Shakur spent 12 years in a Bantu refugee camp in Kenya. Now he's using every opportunity he can find to learn English.

“[I listen] on television, and I go to school and at the job. Every day I work at the Marriott Hotel in the laundry, washing clothes and towels,” he says.

Despite the huge obstacles they've faced, case workers say the Bantu are adjusting remarkably well to their new lives, following a pattern that's starting to become familiar in Kansas City. Joy Foster, executive director of Jewish Vocational Service, has watched wave after wave of immigrants and refugees succeed.

“We'll pick them up at the airport. They sometimes have just their documents and a blanket wrapped around them. And within a couple of years they're really doing well. They know they can't go home, and so they're going to make it,” she adds.

Kansas City's new immigrants have plenty of success stories to inspire them. Arthur Gadelov, originally from Azerbaizhan, believes he's more content than friends who live in other parts of the United States.

“It's a great city,” he notes. “I have a family, and there's a big difference between the east coast and west coast. The middle in my opinion is the best place to raise children.”

Denis Zijadic was part of the Bosnian influx into Kansas City in the 1990s.

“Most of them stayed here. They bought houses. They're all working, so they are self-sufficient. I think we like it here,” he adds.

Dennis Zijadic now works at the Jewish Vocational Service as a management coordinator. He says he knows how it feels to be a refugee, and he's using that experience to help others put down roots in Kansas City.