The Philadelphia non-profit Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition (SEAMAAC) was bustling with activity in the afternoon hours of Nov. 7. Men and women with origins spanning from Vietnam and Laos, to Indonesia and Burma, cold-called potential voters with advice on where to find their polling location, tactics on how to identify voter intimidation and candidate stances on immigrant issues. Thoai Nguyen, CEO of SEAMAAC, said it was just one of the services the NGO provides for those living in the 19148, 19147, and 19145 zip codes.
“We offer free English classes, free job-readiness skills, job placement, advocacy in public education to make sure youth in the public school system have proper ESL instruction,” said Nguyen. “We do a lot of health accompaniment and civic engagement as well.”
SEAMAAC was founded in 1984 when a large population of Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, ethnic Hmong and ethnic Chinese refugees and immigrants had already settled in South Philadelphia. Today, Nguyen says SEAMAAC services are more critical than ever, especially for the most recent wave of Bhutanese, Burmese, ethnic Chin, ethnic Shan, and ethnic Karen groups settling in the city.
He should know, being a former refugee himself.
“My family was resettled by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in 1975 when I was ten years old. Now I work with HIAS doing post-resettlement work myself, and consider South Philly to be my home,” said Nguyen.
Hani White, the city’s Deputy Director of Immigration Affairs, identified the beginning of Southeast Asian resettlement programs in South Philadelphia in the early 1970s and said the problems most heavily affecting the community haven’t changed at their core.
“Language access has always been a large challenge,” White said. “Many come in with no or limited (written) language capacity and a totally different context of cultural education.”
That cultural context is often agrarian in nature, and was a significant difficulty for ethnic Hmong groups resettling in the 1980s and ‘90s most accustomed to farm life and homeopathic remedies rather than urban living and Western medicine. According to Nguyen, the problems affecting today’s refugees are even more forbidding.
“What I see with the new arrivals, in particular the Bhutanese and the ethnic groups from Burma, is the situation is more dire [for them]. They were living in refugee camps for a decade, sometimes two decades prior to coming to the United States,” said Nguyen.
Generational poverty is difficult for these new groups to overcome in large part due to an inability to mentally transition from refugee camps to large urban centers. Language access and agrarian roots are substantial contributing factors, but psychological evaluations of people living in refugee camps are grim. Heightened rates of depression, PTSD, and traumatic brain injury affect refugees at substantially higher rates than they do the general population.
Psychological predisposition to these symptoms result from atrocities committed in war, violence or persecution perpetuated by a government, and other life-threatening experiences prompting exit from their home countries. Deceptively simple adaptation challenges such as learning to navigate public transportation, grocery shopping, handling money, and distinguishing between identical row homes also affect families settling in the area.
South Philadelphia is a historic point of entry for immigrants settling in Philadelphia. With 14 percent of the population living in the 19145 zip code being foreign-born, it is clear the influx of Southeast Asian refugees and immigrants is contributing to the tradition of diversity and refuge found there.
“South Philly has always kind of been economically depressed neighborhood,” Nguygen said. “Lower living costs and lower housing costs, which is attractive to refugees and immigrants coming to a city. With the influx of Southeast Asian refugees coming in the 1970s, South Philly became an area where you can resettle a family cheaply and quickly.”
Nguyen fondly recalls the South 7th Street corridor as a bustling thoroughfare of Jewish business and remembers life as the first refugee family on the block.
“A lot of the (Jewish) population themselves had entered the United States post-WWII, where they had endured nightmarish situations with Nazi Germany and concentration camps, so the empathy they had for my family was heartfelt.”
A recent report by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program found 39 percent of Philadelphia’s foreign-born population are of Asian decent, making it the largest immigrant group in the city. More than 500,000 immigrants live and work in Philadelphia, making up 22.8 percent of the city’s population. Based on the 2000 census and prior to the influx of Bhutanese and ethnic Burmese refugee resettlement, South Philadelphia was reportedly 39 percent white, 26 percent Black, 25 percent Asian, and 5 percent Hispanic.
The number of immigrants of Asian decent in the area is steadily growing, and with it comes a responsibility to new immigrants and refugees in the area.
“The Southeast Asian community is adding to the rich history of immigrant communities coming in, adding to the rich tapestry of what Philadelphia should be,” Nguyen said. “Hopefully we will be as welcoming to the Ethiopian and Congolese moving into the area, the possible Syrian refugees, as my family was welcomed by the Jewish community.”
-Text, images and video by Maggie Andresen.