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The prospect of a garden full of fresh vegetables pleases Monika Wabala, facing page. Wabala recently moved to Grand Rapids with her family from the Republic of Congo, after living for 14 years in a refugee camp in Tanzania.

The new melting pot
A broader world view and new waves
of immigration encourage Grand Rapidians
to experience diverse cultures.

By Terri Finch Hamilton
Photography by Johnny Quirin

Nathan Nguyen, happily celebrating his second birthday, waves his round sesame ball in the air, aloft at the end of a pointy chopstick.

“We’re a melting pot,” his mom, Joann Farmer-Nguyen observes, seated at a round table sharing dim sum with a group of Asian women friends at Sunny Kitchen on Eastern Avenue.

A melting pot? Grand Rapids?

The closer you look, the more you realize it’s true.

Sure, you can stumble across a fair number of wooden shoes in these parts. But the latest Census figures show Grand Rapids is only 59 percent white. Everybody else is something else — black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian or a mix of two or more races.

Kent County Hispanics increased by a whopping 45 percent between 2000 and 2010, U.S. Census figures show — more than four times the 1990 total.

“On your day-to-day running around Grand Rapids, all you might see is white people,” said Mary Edmond, a longtime Grand Rapids educator who works on the relationship between Grand Rapids and its sister city in Ghana. “So you think this is just a white town. But it isn’t.”

Jessica Gladden sees Grand Rapids’ diversity expand with every new family who moves here — from Burma, Bhutan, Congo, Somalia, Sudan.

Gladden is executive director of Thrive, a nonprofit group that started a year ago to help refugee families after their government-sponsored assistance runs out.

The diversity makes Grand Rapids more exciting for everyone, Gladden says.

“You get to experience the whole world without leaving Grand Rapids,” she said. “You can learn from people about their cultures, their food, their values.

“You can see that not everyone lives the same way,” she said. “There are all different ways of living and they’re all good — they’re just different.”

It’s the same attitude you hear from the folks involved in Grand Rapids Sister Cities International, the group that fosters relationships between Grand Rapids and five cities around the globe — Omihachiman, Japan; Bielsko-Biala, Poland; Perugia, Italy; Ga East/West Districts, Ghana, and Zapopan, Mexico.

“Our city is diverse, with people of all kinds of different ethnicities,” said Louis Berra, vice president of Grand Rapids Sister Cities International.

“The people who originally settled here were Polish and German and Dutch,” Berra said. “And now look at how fast the Hispanic population is growing.”

His parents came to Michigan from the Milan, Italy, area. His Italian mother wouldn’t allow him to speak Italian growing up.

“‘You’re in America,’” she said. “You speak English.’ ”

So young Lou assimilated. But Berra still talks dreamily of the homemade meat- and-cheese-stuffed ravioli his cousins make.

“I think we all have an affinity to relate back to our roots,” said Berra, 69, director of the Michigan office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Getting involved in Sister Cities is a way to do that.”

Through the organization you can find a pen pal or a Skype pal. If you’re a college student, you might study abroad. You can help African sister city the Ga District, with its water purification system. When artists and musicians from sister cities visit here to perform, you can drink in their culture.

“We all have a degree of connectedness,” Berra said. “It won’t be long before white anglos will be the minority. What are they calling it? ‘The browning of America.’

“Being able to appreciate and understand different cultures is going to be more and more important,” he said. “We need to get different points of view of how others see the world, to be able to have a conversation with someone from another country about their viewpoints.”

Beyond the sister cities relationships, there’s evidence all over town of the melting pot Joann Farmer-Nguyen spoke of as her toddler son happily munched his sesame ball.

Thai restaurants are almost as prolific as Walgreens. Once a month at Schuler Books and Music, Club Italia meets to chatter in Italian. Another day each month, “J-Chat” happens there —conversation and a culture presentation in Japanese.

The Golden Bridge Plaza on Division near 44th Street SE is a thriving Asian mall, anchored by a supermarket that transports you to other lands with its exotic produce, chicken feet and tub of live crayfish.

There’s a Catholic church in Wyoming — Our Lady of La Vang — where services are conducted only in Vietnamese.

At schools throughout Grand Rapids, youngsters who have moved here from refugee camps all over the world attend after- school programs called “Elimu” — Swahili for “education” — to help them adjust.

Over at the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, executive director Carlos Sanchez talks of Grand Rapids’ growing diversity, thanks to international employers such as Amway, Steelcase and Van Andel Institute.

Sanchez almost smacks his lips when he talks about the food at his favorite Mexican restaurant, El Granjero, where he happily notes cactus is on the menu.


Dieudonna Mbuyukazemba and his father, Banz Mukalay, plant tomatoes at the garden sponsored by the church.

At festivals, restaurants and churches all over town, people celebrate the cultures that help make them who they are — and invite the rest of us to join in and learn something.

“When you get people to reach out, face-to-face, it’s very real,” said Rina Sala-Baker, Grand Rapids’ go-to woman on all things Italy, in her melodic Italian accent.

“Most people, all over the world, have the same needs. They care about their families, they want security, they want to provide an education for their children. People have more in common than they have differences.

“That’s how you’ll achieve world peace,” Sala-Baker said with a smile. “People to people.”

Using Grand Rapids’ sister cities relationships as a jumping off point, here’s a look at some of the multi-hued cultures in our midst. (And if you get over to Happy Kitchen for dim sum, 2-year-old Nathan Nguyen recommends the sesame balls. Spear ‘em on a chopstick, like he does, and wave).

Monika Wabala sifts through the packets of vegetable seeds as if they were candy, her eyes lingering over the bright photos of squash, carrots and peas, the tiny seeds rattling inside.

When she moved to Grand Rapids with her family after living for 14 years in a refugee camp in Tanzania, everything was strange and overwhelming.

But the prospect of a garden full of leafy greens and plump pumpkins has the mother of seven from war-torn Congo beaming. She remembers how to grow vegetables.

Jessica Gladden watches the scene happily. She’s executive director of Thrive, a refugee support program that helps families adjust to their new lives in Grand Rapids.

“Gladden teaches English to a group of refugees from Africa on Sundays after church at South Wyoming United Methodist Church, where the families tend vegetable plots.

“Corn?” Wabala asks Gladden hopefully as she ponders the seed packets.

“Here, corn is difficult to grow, but very cheap to buy,” Gladden tells her.

“Potatoes?” asks Wabala’s daughter, Fatuma Minyeko. “Is this vegetable?”

Sure, Gladden tells her. They can plant potatoes.

Fatuma smiles. “It is good,” she says. “A garden for me and my mom.”

“The thing that strikes me about African families is how close they are, how much they take care of each other,” Gladden says. “Not just their immediate family, but their extended family — cousins, brothers-in-law. We can learn so much from them.”

Across town, Mary Edmond echoes that. For 15 years she was the chair of the Ga committee of Grand Rapids Sister Cities International, and remains a passionate member of the group that connects Grand Rapids with its African friends in Ghana.

When she returns from a trip to Ghana, Edmond, 74, says everybody wants to know what animals she saw.

“There are no zebras in Ghana,” she says. “Why don’t they ask me about the people?”

People are always at the center of the local events the Ga committee organizes.

On a recent warm spring night, they gathered at a Grand Rapids hotel banquet room and, one after another, men and women walked to the front of the room to proudly accept recognition for relatives long gone, but not forgotten.

Their ancestors were black soldiers who fought in the Civil War, but who went unrecognized, unhonored.

This night at the Airport Hilton Hotel in Grand Rapids, they were honored at an event called “Out of Africa 3: A Celebration of Sons and Daughters of Africa and Their Contributions to the U.S. Civil War.”

It was a sort of bridge: an event that brought many movers and shakers from Grand Rapids’ African-American community together with members from the Ga committee.

At the heart of these events, and this relationship, is education, says Pat Pulliam, publisher of the Grand Rapids Times, longtime educator and a speaker at the event.

“We can’t take our history lightly because other cultures refuse to acknowledge it or don’t know its value,” Pulliam says. “Google it. You can find so much that’s been omitted from our history textbooks. Go get more information, then share it with kids.”

Edmond said she works hard to get local African-Americans involved with the Ga Sister Cities committee.

“African-Americans don’t know any more about Africa than anybody else,” she says. “We’ve all had the same lack of information in school.

“There’s lots of misinformation about Africans,” says Edmond, who has traveled to Ghana several times. “When people go there and people come here and get to know each other face-to-face, a lot of stereotypes disappear.

“We’re all human beings. Like us, they love, they hate, they eat, they breathe, they have families.”

Minnie Morey scans the dim sum menu, taking in the options: stuffed eggplant, steamed spareribs with black bean sauce, lotus paste bun, pan-fried turnip cake, beef in rice roll, steamed chicken feet.


Minnie Morey, at right, and other members of the Joy Luck Club meet at The BOB. In the background, from left, are Ethel Ludvico, Cindy Molnar, Alice Kennedy and Zehia Shafi.

Morey is the perfect person to chat with about the Asian community in Grand Rapids. President of the West Michigan Asian American Association, she has her finger on the pulse of the Asian community here, always planning some kind of gathering that will bring people of diverse cultural backgrounds together.

One minute she’s gathering 30 “powerful Asian women” at The BOB, the next she’s on her cell phone with Father Phong Pham, former pastor of St. Mary Magdalen Church in Kentwood, to see if he’ll speak about today’s Vietnam at an upcoming Asian heritage celebration.

While the dim sum simmers in the kitchen at Sunny Kitchen on Eastern Avenue SE and Father Phong peruses his calendar, Morey says the first thing to clear up is the definition of Asian.

“When people think Asian, they think Chinese or Japanese,” says Morey, 64, who is Filipino. “But just in Kent County there’s Filipino, Indonesian, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Asian Indian, Korean.”

“Asians are all over, right?” she asks, as she sips a cup of shrimp and tofu soup. “We’re trying to network, to support each other.”

That’s the purpose of the West Michigan Asian American Association. The group throws an Asian Gala each year that attracts hundreds of area Asians and a slew of corporate sponsors. This year the keynote speaker was Gov. Rick Snyder.

The group awards scholarships, hosts networking events, helps Asians new to the area navigate the health care system.

Morey is trying to convince the young people adopted from Korea as babies to form their own association.

“The Korean babies didn’t have any cultural school to connect them to their roots like the Chinese children do today. There are Koreans out there with the last name Miskowsi. They need to connect to their Asian roots.”

Mayumi Balfour connects to her Japanese roots by serving on the board of the Omihachiman Sister Cities committee. She loves that more sushi restaurants are popping up all over town, and she happily helped a guy at the sushi counter at a Meijer store the other day who had questions.

The Japanese garden planned at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park will be a gathering place for people to learn about Japanese culture, she says.

As our community grows in diversity, understanding and acceptance is crucial, Balfour says. She tells of three suicides she knows of involving Asian young people who felt unaccepted, disconnected.

“I think all people should be accepted,” she says. “If someone was talking to them, and they felt someone understood them, maybe they didn’t need to die.”

She and Morey both talk of how people raised in the Asian culture tend to keep to themselves. Proud and polite, they don’t want to come across as aggressive. They hang back until invited to join in. “At first, their mind is here, but their heart is home with family members who are behind,” Morey says.

“They’re trying to get a job, get their family settled, and trying to get the rest of their family here. It takes Asians longer to feel part of things here.

“We need to be more vocal. But you have to understand many left their country with mistrust of the government. It will take them a while to trust this government, to trust the banks.

“People say ‘How come they don’t want to speak English?”

She laughs.
“Hey, there are people on the West Side who still speak only Polish.”

“You know, we’re all very similar,” Morey adds, dipping into her dried fish and vegetables. “People from Italy and other countries in Europe went through the same things we did.”

The chatter of Spanish mingles in the air with the smell of sizzling beef and onions at El Granjero, a Mexican restaurant on Bridge Street and Lane that boasts authentic Mexican recipes.


At Yarima’s Haircuts in the 34th Street Market, Eric Ornelas and Jesus Gonzales get their hair trimmed by Barbara Medina and Maria Morales.

There’s cactus on the menu — stuffed and grilled or diced into a salad, and when you choose a meat to fill your quesadilla or torta, the choices go beyond chicken or beef. You can pick Mexican sausage, pineapple- seasoned pork or “lengua” — beef tongue.

This is Carlos Sanchez’ favorite restaurant, where the recipes come straight from Mexico City and many of the ingredients are shipped here from Mexico.

Sanchez, executive director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, is also chair of the Zapopan, Mexico, committee of Grand Rapids Sister Cities International.

Sanchez says 18 percent of the Grand Rapids population is Hispanic, and of that, 87 percent is Mexican, followed by Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Guatemalans and El Salvadorans.

The mix is good for everybody, he says.

“We want to be citizens of the world,” he says. “We’re not here on our own. It’s important to know what’s happening in other cultures.

“We can develop a real relationship between someone who lives in a town in Zapopan or Perugia and someone who lives in a neighborhood in Grand Rapids,” Sanchez says. “Try to do that without a sister cities relationship, and it would be like putting a message in a bottle, sending it out and hoping someone finds it. This way, it’s like delivering the message.”

The Zapopan committee will be starting a Pen Pal 2.0 program where students from Zapopan and Ada Vista School — Forest Hills’ Spanish immersion school — will email and Skype back and forth.
Sanchez is Mexican, but he points out not every Latino person is.

“When people see me, they assume I’m Mexican,” he says. “They ask me about tequila and Mexican food and Mexican restaurants. I can talk about that. However, if I was Dominican, and if I got asked those questions 10 times a day...”

Well, he might get grouchy, he says.

“Don’t assume everybody is Mexican,” he says. “Be culturally sensitive. People say, ‘Well, it keeps getting more and more complicated.’ Yes, it does.”

The benefit to this diversity?

“Most immigrants came from places where they had almost nothing,” Sanchez says. “So now they come here and hear companies say they need to do more with less. They’ve been there, done that. They’re very resilient. They can work well in that environment.

“In these times when business models are changing, we need to innovate,” Sanchez says. “We need every idea that’s out there. Immigrants are more likely to be entrepreneurs. It’s important for the rest of the community to embrace that. The people who started many of our big companies were immigrants.”

Still, we have a ways to go, he says.

“While Grand Rapids is a very diverse community, it’s not that inclusive,” Sanchez says. “Physically, we’re segregated, divided by U.S. 131. It makes it hard for people in Cascade or East Grand Rapids to go to a really good Mexican restaurant on the west side.

“Hispanic businesses need to go beyond east of Division,” he says. “And consumers there need to demand those restaurants. I like Qdoba, but it’s not Mexican.

“The misconception is that we don’t want to assimilate,” Sanchez says. “We do. But it takes time. People say, ‘My parents came here from Germany and they had to learn how to speak English.’

“Well, yes, but it took years,” he says. “Give us a break, and allow it to happen.”

The Latinos in Grand Rapids are celebrating the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, but still keeping Dia de los Muertos and Mexican Independence Day close to their hearts.

“More people are celebrating those holidays with us,” Sanchez says. “That’s great, as long as you’re respectful of those holidays and don’t cheapen them to the point of Cinco de Mayo, where the whole point is just to get drunk.”

For a new adventure, he suggests, check out the Latino flea markets in town.

“It’s like you’ve been transported to a small town in Mexico,” he says. Find them at 28th Street and Madison, on Division between 34th and 36th streets and on Division by the Beltline Bar.

The Pew Research Center projects that nearly one in five Americans — 19 percent — will be foreign born by 2050, well above the 2005 level of 12 percent.

And Hispanics will be nearly 30 percent of the U.S. population by then, the center predicts.

“Some older folks are gonna have a hard time with that,” Sanchez says. “They’ll talk about the good old days. They may not like the changes in their town. But there’s not much we can do about that.
“It’s gonna happen.”

Rina Sala-Baker is the best greeter in the universe, happily embracing every person who walks through the door at Russo’s Italian Restaurant, kissing them on each cheek and offering a hearty “ciao” or “buona sera.”

It’s the ninth anniversary celebration of Club Italia, a Grand Rapids Club of Italians and Italy lovers that meets once a month to speak Italian together.


Rina Sala-Baker and her husband, Marlin, center, join friends Steve and Mary Cohle at Salvatore’s Italiana Restaurant on Stocking Avenue NW.

Back in the kitchen, she confides, there’s a white anniversary cake festooned with little Italian flags.
It’s an eclectic group, from senior citizens who came here speaking only Italian to college students fresh from a year of study in Italy.

Sala-Baker kisses them all. She’s the city’s go-to woman for all things Italy. When city leaders Mayor George Heartwell and deputy city manager Eric DeLonge travel to Grand Rapids’ Italian sister city, Perugia, Baker, 61, is their interpreter.

She was president for a time of the Perugia committee of Grand Rapids Sister Cities International and still has a seat on the board.

She helped Meijer’s wine buyer select Italian wine in the wineries of Umbria to stock the shelves. She taught Italian language classes to youngsters and their parents at Holy Spirit school.

Most Friday nights she has dinner at Salvatore’s, at Stocking and Alpine on the northwest side, run by the same Italian family from Sicily for the past 40 years. The parents are in their 80s and still work in the kitchen.

When you think of ethnic diversity, you don’t think of white people like Rina. But she represents a host of people who hail from European countries who look a lot like most anybody’s parents or grandparents — the immigrants who came here decades ago to start new lives for their families.

German, Polish, Dutch — you wouldn’t pick them out of a crowd on Calder Plaza. But somebody in their past came here, brave and scared, just like the Congolese refugees who arrived at the airport last week.

Sala-Baker tells of members of the local Sons of Italy group, now called the Italian American Club of West Michigan, who have photos of their ancestors who moved here from Italy to work in the gypsum mines.

“These people worked very hard to give a chance to the next group,” Sala-Baker says.

That’s what people did, she muses — moved here from all sorts of countries to make a better life for those who came after them.

“That’s what they still do.” GR

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