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Who Gets a Welcome Mat in Charlotte?

(AP Photo/Chuck Burton, file)

For the first time in his life, Hari Dhimal has a place to call home. One of thousands of refugees who have resettled in Charlotte over the last two decades, Dhimal lived in a refugee camp for 20 years before relocating to the U.S. five years ago.

In the early 1990s, Dhimal’s family and over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese people living in southern Bhutan were forced out of the country and stripped of their citizenship as part of the government’s ethnic cleansing decree. Dhimal was just 5 years old when he entered an eastern Nepali refugee camp with his parents and two siblings.

“We lived in a small house made up of bamboo within the camp,” Dhimal recalls. “There was no clean water for drinking. There was no electricity, and there was never enough food for all five of us.”

He learned English at the camp’s school. There were no opportunities for meaningful employment, so to earn money, his father traveled with priests as a religious musician. With the money he earned, he was able to send his son to a local university. Dhimal earned a physics degree. Then, in 2009, the family learned that they would be accepted into the U.S.

When Dhimal arrived to Charlotte, he was 23. He was one of around 600 refugees who resettle in Charlotte each year, just one slice of the overall immigrant picture in the city. As City Lab recently reported about Charlotte, “between 1980 and 2000, [the] Hispanic population grew a staggering 932 percent — more than twice the national rate.”

Immigrants and resettled refugees are playing a critical role in a growing local economy. Yet many local leaders who are welcoming must grapple with a state-level hostility surrounding refugee and immigration issues. Last month, Governor Pat McCrory moved to block Syrian refugees from entering the state. And in September, North Carolina passed anti-immigration legislation that would prohibit North Carolina cities from passing sanctuary city ordinances. Moreover, while the city of Charlotte has launched initiatives to support refugees and immigrants in recent years, Dhimal thinks it can do more.

Driving the Economy

Since the early 1930s, Charlotte’s Eastside has experienced various degrees of transition. After its mostly middle-class and white residents fled to outer suburbs in the 1950s and 60s, the area was largely abandoned. As a local immigrant population began to increase in the late 1980s and early 2000s, Latinos and refugees from Burma, Bhutan, Iran and eastern Africa began to move in. The area is now Charlotte’s most ethnically diverse community, with a population of 33.5 percent foreign-born residents, over half of who arrived post-2000, according to Census data. Without any formal development happening in the area, many of these newcomers began taking over former mom-and-pop shops.

A 2014 study by researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill credited the 750,000 immigrants who have settled in the state since the early 1980s with economic growth, citing a total economic impact of $19.7 billion in 2010. Living in metropolitan areas such as Charlotte and Raleigh, they account for 13 to 18 percent of total buying power.

According to Claire Schuch, researcher on immigrant businesses and emerging gateways at UNC-Charlotte, immigrant- and refugee-owned businesses have transformed deteriorating neighborhoods into vibrant urban environments conducive to further development.

The Catholic Charities Diocese of Charlotte, which has resettled more than 15,000 refugees in the last 40 years, sees many of its clients start businesses — moving from low-skill, labor jobs to owning moving companies, shipping businesses, laundromats, grocery stores, and restaurants around the Eastside. (More than 400 businesses call the area home, and generated tax revenue of $12.7 million in 2010.)

A Path to Full Citizenship

In 2013, Charlotte City Council voted to form an Immigrant Integration Task Force, and the city has considered a municipal ID program for immigrants. While the state’s anti-sanctuary law could prohibit such IDs, Charlotte’s new mayor, Jennifer Roberts, who was sworn in earlier this month, supports a municipal ID program. And while running for office, in November, when Gov. McCrory was advocating closing doors to refugees, she said, “If there are people who are truly fleeing the same terrorism and violence and have the same perspective and have been screened then we should be welcoming.”

Dhimal, who now works as an employment specialist for the Carolina Refugee Resettlement Agency, which has helped more than 3,000 refugees from 40 countries settle into the Charlotte area, would like to see the city collect more data. Numbers about long-term refugee integration could inform local and state policy.

And that same entrepreneurial spirit that is helping Charlotte’s overall economy is a strength: Refugees and immigrants are mobilizing and working through the business community, with the city’s Neighborhood and Business Services program, to address concerns of business property safety, and security within their community.

These populations still face large cultural and linguistic barriers built on a universal distrust of government marked by years of abandonment and displacement from their home countries. The city will need to address political participation and civic engagement to fully integrate the refugee and immigrant communities, beyond providing support services for resettlement.

For former refugee residents like Dhimal — who was granted full citizenship status last year — citizenship is a milestone. His wife, also from his native Bhutan, became a citizen last month. “We are so happy. Now we have an identity,” he says.