CUYAHOGA FALLS — Last year, cities around the country approved resolutions declaring their communities immigrant friendly, "Welcoming Cities."
The Cuyahoga Falls resolution states "Immigrants add civic, cultural and economic value to communities they adopt as their new homes and are also prospective entrepreneurs who start businesses, create jobs, complement the skills of the workforce, produce greater demand for existing businesses and services and help revitalize neighborhoods."
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 4.2 percent of the city’s population is foreign born — or more than 2,000 residents, including a large Nepalese-Bhutanese population, which has migrated to the the city Akron’s adjacent North Hill neighborhood.
Thousands of recently arriving refugees from Bhutan and other South Asian countries have settled in North Hill and Cuyahoga Falls and area school districts report students who are learning English as a second language speak more than a dozen foreign tongues. Signs in hospital elevators can be found that provide information in as many as 18 different languages.
"We are grateful to our immigrant and refugee communities for choosing to do business in the City of Cuyahoga Falls," said Mayor Don Walters. "Our business owners have continued to invest in the City of Cuyahoga Falls by purchasing homes and getting involved in the community. We are proud that our diversity throughout the city is improving and that we are actively and intentionally focusing our efforts on inclusivity."
In 2017, the city of Akron cited a study by the Partnership for a New American Economy and the Knight Foundation that showed that "as a result of immigrants and refugees settling in the greater Akron community, our local population is stabilizing, our tax base is strengthening, housing prices our climbing and businesses are forming and reviving."
And immigrants who own local businesses say they have found fertile ground in Northeast Ohio for their pursuit of the American Dream.
Here are some of their stories.
Farhad Sethna is a immigration attorney in Cuyahoga Falls. He immigrated to America from Mumbai, India, as a student in 1986 and never went back. He attended the University of Akron on a scholarship and received a doctorate degree in law and master’s degree in business administration. After working for a law firm in Akron for five years, he started his own practice in Cuyahoga Falls.
Since 1996, Sethna has been on his own, practicing immigration and business law. For just as long, he has also been teaching immigration law at the University of Akron as an adjunct member of the faculty.
Sethna said the American Dream is not dead; that people immigrate to this country every day with the hope of starting a new life here. "One of the wonderful things about immigration is this … your forefathers came to this country under trying circumstances … They came with that dream, that desire," he said.
Recently, Sethna said, he helped a young man from India set up a corporation to establish a small Indian restaurant in Cuyahoga Falls. In addition to restaurateurs, Sethna said he’s helped engineers, scientists and musicians. immigrants establish themselves in nanotechnology and the music industry.
"It’s a wonderful and fruitful practice where I get to see someone develop," Sethna said. "All of that helps America because those people are going to hire Americans to work in those businesses."
Sethna said he recommends newly admitted immigrants get legal representation, be proactive and make sure documents are in order before anyone questions them, learn English, become a citizen as soon as possible and register to vote.
"I love America," Sethna said. "It gave me a chance, and I want to give back."
Dong Wook Park is the owner of the Asian Food Market and Korean Restaurant in Cuyahoga Falls. Park, 55, came to America from South Korean in 1989. In South Korea, Park was an engineer making semiconductors for a Samsung computer factory. His days were long.
"Too busy. Too rushed," he said. "I worked. I got a break day one day per month." Park said he worked for Samsung for 10 years, "almost seven days a week, 12 hours a day." After being urged to move to America by his sister in California, Park and his wife, Sandy, and their son, who was 1 at the time, relocated to Tuscon, Arizona, where he worked for his sister’s clothing wholesale company.
After five years out west, the Park family moved to Akron where Dong had a friend from Korea. Park has owned the Asian Market 16 years. While looking for a business opportunity in the Akron area, he met the original owner who sold it to him. Park said the Asian Market has been around for 32 years, and he believes it’s the oldest Japanese / Korean market in Ohio.
"I like America because here I have more time for family and for church," Park said, adding he attends a church in Cleveland. "In Korea, everything is too busy." Park’s business is closed Sundays and Mondays.
Park and his wife have not yet applied for citizenship. Park said he didn’t consider while his parents were alive because he make regular trips back to South Korea to visit them. Since they’ve both passed away and he no longer travels to his homeland, he said he is likely going to become an American citizen.
Anup Gupta emigrated from India where he said it is common for three generations of a family to live in one household. Gupta said growing up, he lived with his grandparents, parents and two younger brothers. He is from the small town of Sunam in the state of Punjab (northern India).
While in India, Gupta graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree and entered law school. In 1989, after completing a year of law school, Gupta, the owner of AG Print Promo Solutions in Cuyahoga Falls, immigrated to America to go back to school to pursue a master’s degree in marketing. He attended college in Manchester, New Hampshire. Upon earning his master’s, he moved to Ohio where he got a job as a sales and marketing director.
Gupta said he was prompted to start his own business, something he always wanted to do, sooner than he expected when he was laid off from his job in June of 1996. "That was a terrible time for us because my wife wasn’t working at that time and our first child was due in August," he said. "We had no income and a new baby on the way."
He founded his business in October of 1996, about a year after he and his wife, Anju, were married in India. Upon his return to America with his bride, Gupta applied for his permanent resident card, or Green Card, and completed the process to become a U.S. citizen. A refugee or immigrant cannot apply for a job or get a driver’s license until they have a Green Card.
Getting his business off the ground was "very tough," Gupta said, adding he didn’t know if being Indian made it more difficult.
"Starting a business by itself is not easy," he said. "You don’t have any established credit so you have to pay for all your supplies up front. You don’t have any revenue coming in but your expenses are mounting."
Gupta said his door is always open to college students whether they are from America or another country who want to talk to a business owner with more than 20 years of experience.
"I tell them if you work hard, you’re honest, passionate and you give it 100 percent, you will be successful and no one can stop you," Gupta said. "That’s what brought me here and that’s what kept me here."
Tae Yoon, 36, came to America from North Korean in 2001 to attend college. While attending classes at the University of Akron, he worked in his family’s Korean restaurant, Seoul Gardens in Cuyahoga Falls, founded by his grandparents in 1989. In 2002, Yoon’s mother, Sunjong Yoon Lee came to America and purchased the restaurant from her mother.
Yoon, who is the restaurant’s manager, said when he came to America on a student’s visa to attend college and wasn’t planning to stay. His mother got her Green Card not long after she arrived, he said, and got his Green Card in 2009. He became a citizen in 2017 the year after he married Hyeonjin Shim.
"I like this town, Cuyahoga Falls," Yoon said. "After college I lived in Irvine, California, for two years. There’s a huge Korean community there. I didn’t like it. Too big, too much gossip. While I was in Irvine, I thought about this town. So calm, so safe. Everything is peaceful." Yoon said he and his wife like to travel to big cities including New York and Atlanta, but plan to stay in Cuyahoga Falls where there is less people and crime, and is less competition for a Korean restaurant.
Yoon recommends immigrants be prepared when they come to America. ‘If you’re coming from another country, this is a different culture. You’ve got to be aware of what you’re doing," he said, adding he’s seen other Asians from China, Korea and southeast Asia with little or no knowledge of the language, etiquette or customs here in America.
"This is the number one country in the world," Yoon said. "That means the American people are doing something right, so learn from the Americans, act right, speak right. Once you learn [the English language], you’ve got to teach your country’s people."
Tomas Martinez, the new owner of El Meson Mexican restaurant in Cuyahoga Falls, was a third-grade teacher in his native Ecuador when he met his wife-to-be, Susan Monica Mills-Martinez, who was visiting the country through Ohio State University’s Spanish exchange program. When they decided to move to America in 2010, Martinez was not worried about learning English.
"Before we moved to the U.S. I didn’t worry much about learning English because I thought it was going to be super easy," he said. "I was thinking I would learn it really quick, which was not the case. English is one of the toughest languages someone can learn. It’s really tough. Sometimes I have regrets not learning English before I cam here."
Tomas and Susan lived in Mansfield, Susan’s hometown, when they came to America. Because he knew very little English, Tomas stayed home, which was against his normally outgoing nature. That lasted for a month. "Then one day, I thought I have to just move on," he said, "embrace the fact that I’m here and go and do something." He said he had to find a job and thought of Chipotle.
He already had his Green Card, having applied for it before leaving Ecuador.
"I thought they might have a job for me, and I love the food so I can get a free meal over there," Martinez said. "So I drove to the Chipotle in Ontario, Ohio, close to Mansfield. I couldn’t speak English, so I said, ‘Job. Work. Work.’ Luckily, someone spoke Spanish there and said, ‘Yeah, we can hire you.’ That was my first job in the U.S., in 2010 a month after I got here."
Martinez took ownership of El Meson in January. He puts in long hours.
"I feel like the luckiest man on earth," he said. "I work really hard. I get here around 10 a.m. and leave around 1 a.m. … This is the land of opportunity. I really believe if you work hard, you will get the opportunity. Your dreams will come true. In my country, life is beautiful, the food is delicious, everything is fine, but you can work really hard there and still not get anywhere."
"America a beautiful country," Martinez said. "I love it."
Editor Eric Marotta contributed to this story.
Reporter Steve Wiandt can be reached at 330-541-9420, firstname.lastname@example.org or @SteveWiandt_RPC.