Lives Transplanted, a Region Transformed
By D'Vera Cohn
The managers and clerks at Rodman's come from Ethiopia, the Ivory Coast, El Salvador, Colombia, Bolivia and Pakistan. The store sells Jamaican beef patties, fresh plantains and giant jars of curry powder to its increasingly international clientele. "I try to learn a few words in other languages," Bojang says. "It helps with the customers."
Fifteen miles around the Beltway, on Columbia Pike in South Arlington, Dolores Espinoza greets the first lunchtime arrivals at Wendy's. Behind her, the Pakistani district manager confers with the Peruvian-born store manager. In front of her, hungry whites, blacks and Latinos line up at this popular fast-food hub, located in a shabby but thriving community that has the highest concentration of immigrants in the metropolitan area.
"May I help you?" asks Espinoza, a shy woman from Honduras who has learned a few useful English phrases. After six years of bagging burgers, the young mother mustered the courage to try handling the cash register, at $6.50 an hour. "I thought I could never do it, but I memorized all the keys," she explains in Spanish before placing the next order. "One Nomber Tree Combo," she calls to the kitchen.
Bojang, Espinoza and their multicultural mosaic of bosses and customers epitomize the profound transformation of Washington and its suburbs. More than 350,000 legal immigrants, a number greater than the combined populations of Alexandria and Arlington County, have arrived here or legalized their status since the early 1980s. From Cameroon and Cambodia, El Salvador and Israel, Bulgaria and Jamaica, this influx has rippled throughout the region, enriching most communities, their residents say, but also challenging governments, schools and American-born neighbors to adjust.
Immigration is the engine driving population changes in the region's inner suburbs. In the District and Alexandria as well as in Arlington, Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, most of the growth in new residents has come from immigrants.
Nine in 10 of these newcomers settle first in the area's suburbs, seeking good schools and safe streets far from the city blocks where immigrants of decades past got their foothold in America. Those who remain in the District are often the poorest and least educated.
The arrival of so many foreign-born has fueled tensions in some communities and imposed new, costly demands for services. In the District and neighboring school systems, for example, the number of students needing help with English has tripled in the last decade.
But these immigrants from scores of countries also have revitalized fading inner-Beltway neighborhoods and support hundreds of small businesses, churches and self-help organizations. They have added salsa, saris and spring rolls to once-homogeneous blocks, creating a Little Saigon in Arlington, a Central American barrio in Adams-Morgan and other ethnic enclaves.
A computer-assisted regional analysis of data from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the U.S. Census Bureau and other sources shows:
"I fit in here," said Fadi Zakaria, 37, a former investment adviser in Lebanon who started over as a waiter and now owns two gas stations in Arlington. After 10 years in this country, "My children would die if I ever moved them back home. I took them to Caracas on vacation, and they missed McDonald's and Pizza Hut."
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