Bernie Tolitol, who is from the Phillipines, (left) and Mariam Mirib, who is from Palestine, celebrate with others who took part in a naturalization ceremony in Dayton Thursday. Fifty people took part in the event which is held monthly. The city of Dayton rolled out the welcome mat to immigrants almost three years ago, hoping that migrants would help reinvigorate the local economy and reverse years of population declines.The Welcome Dayton plan seeks to make the city an attractive and accepting place for immigrants, and some early evidence suggests the plan is making progress toward some of its goals.The city's immigrant population continues to grow, and naturalizations in the region recently climbed to the highest level since at least 1990, federal data show. LISA POWELL / STAFF
Photo: Lisa Powell
Photo: Lisa Powell

9 ways Dayton welcomes immigrants

June is Immigrant Heritage Month, a time to remember that by far, the American story for most U.S. citizens begins with an immigrant in either the recent or distant past.

While this city of 140,000 may not be a typical American melting pot, the city has found itself in the spotlight in recent years for its willingness to welcome immigrants.

Here are nine reasons to remember that Dayton has long held the gate open for the traveler, the newcomer, the immigrant.

1. Dayton helped end a war

Remember the Bosnian peace talks? In the mid-1990s, there was a bitter ethnic war in the heart of Europe between three former Yugoslavian enclaves. Dayton helped end the conflict, because that’s how Dayton rolls.

When crunch time came after three years of fighting and U.S. and European diplomats needed a place where talks had a shot at success, they chose Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Negotiators found a way to end the war at the aptly named Hope Hotel, and made L’Auberge restaurant off Far Hills Avenue practically their home away from home.

The resulting accord instituted an uneasy peace that has held sway since December 1995.

2. Dayton threw out the ‘Welcome’ mat

It started with a few questions at a public meeting.

In 2010, then-Dayton Mayor Gary Leitzell tried to sneak into a Northeast Priority Board meeting through a back door. He wanted to sit and listen. But the board chair promptly recognized him, grabbed a microphone and invited citizens to pepper Leitzell with questions.

The one resident whose hand was repeatedly raised was a Turkish native by the name of Islom Shakhbandarov. After a few questions, Leitzell told him, “Come to my office, and we’ll talk.”

Of such humble beginnings was the Welcome Dayton initiative born. It’s basically a series of programs meant to draw immigrants to the city and make them feel welcome once they’re here.

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3. Dayton didn’t shy from the international spotlight

Welcome Dayton attracted more than immigrants. It attracted attention.

Media from across the world starting noticing. The very name of the initiative, calling Dayton “an immigrant friendly city,” was arresting, Leitzell said.

“We left the word ‘immigrant’ in there,” the former mayor said. “We left the word ‘immigrant’ in the broad title. ‘Welcome Dayton, an Immigrant Friendly City.’ That’s what got us international attention when everyone else was going anti-immigrant.”

“We were on CNN — live,” he added with a laugh.

4. Immigrants have had an enduring presence

While Dayton isn’t New York or San Francisco, the city has long welcomed immigrants, and recent media attention took note of that.

“This city of 141,000 already had a small but fast-growing foreign-born population,” the New York Times noted in an October 2013 story. “More than 10,000 Muslims from different countries; refugees from Burundi and Somalia; college students from China, India and Saudi Arabia; Filipinos in health care jobs; and laborers from Latin America, many here illegally.”

“The hospitals, the police, the libraries, the service agencies, the landlords, they were all dealing with immigrants, but no one was talking about it,” then-city manager Tim Riordan, told the Times. “So we brought it out of the shadows.”

Oh, and did you know that a walled community of Hungarian immigrants once called Old North Dayton home? Read more here and here.

5. They boost the city’s population

A result of Welcome Dayton: More people felt welcome in Dayton.

While the city’s population as a whole has shrunk by some 40 percent since the early 1960s, immigrants have been a reliably growing segment of population.

“The population of the city went up,” said Leitzell, who was himself an American immigrant to England as a child.

From 2011 to 2012, Dayton’s immigrant population grew by more than 40 percent, city government said. Compared to other U.S. cities, Dayton had the largest percentage increase in foreign-born population arriving since 2000. And nearly half of foreign-born residents have become naturalized U.S. citizens, the city said.

6. Dayton weathered controversy

Last summer, Mayor Nan Whaley signaled Dayton’s willingness to accept undocumented immigrant children then pouring over southern U.S. border from Central America. While none of the migrant children were housed in Dayton en masse, Whaley’s stance was controversial. U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, publicly disagreed and pursued legislation that would have stripped that decision from cities, giving it instead to governors.

7. Immigrant Heritage Month has actual events — including one in July.

June 20 is World Refugee Day. This afternoon celebration in Macintosh Park brings together people, food, music and performances to celebrate refugee communities calling Dayton home. Go here for details.

On July 9, for the third year, the WE Global Network Convening is coming to the Dayton Convention Center. Keynote speaker Felicia Escobar, special assistant to President Obama for immigration policy, will be on hand.

“This conference is the latest attention that proves Dayton continues to set a standard for being a welcoming, inclusive community to immigrant newcomers,” a Welcome Dayton statement said. See here for details.

8. A menu of options

Shish Wraps, Thai 9, Taqueria Mixteca, Amar India, Pasha Grill and many other eateries are ripe for the choosing. So choose. We don’t have room to list all of the foreign and ethnic fare that Dayton and environs offer. Do get out there and check it out.

9. World A’Fair

Seriously, how can you not know about this?