ERIE, Pa. (AP) - The blades of grass under his cleats, a soccer ball deftly bouncing between his feet, this feeling, although different now than it was in his homeland, still makes Musa Ndagiza feel like himself more than anything else.
He can still hear the crowd cheering inside Nakivubo Stadium, a young defender playing for the Bright Stars FC, one of the teams in the Ugandan Super League, the top division of Ugandan soccer.
As a professional soccer player, he was on TV and written up in newspapers, and was often stopped and greeted by strangers on the streets of Bokuto, where Ndagiza lived as a Congolese refugee until the 23-year-old immigrated to Erie in June 2014.
Ndagiza fled what he called “constant worries in Africa of not knowing who is coming after you to attack you” due to ongoing wars and increasing insecurity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for a life in America.
“I like it here, very much. I like the peace,” he said. “But life is different.”
He works two jobs, making $12 an hour in the production department of a local bakery along with a part-time gig as a translator for the International Institute of Erie.
He lives in an apartment on the city’s east side with his mother and six nieces and nephews, ages 6 to 15, and is the sole earner in the household. The family receives Supplemental Security Income, due to his mother’s health issues, and food stamps.
“We manage to take care, to pay the bills,” Ndagiza said. “But there’s not a lot left over.”
Soccer is still in Ndagiza’s life, as he stars in a summer pickup league hosted by Penn State Behrend.
His team, Erie International, with all 20 members refugees hailing from Africa, so far has won its first four games this season.
World Refugee Day earlier this month came at a time when refugee numbers- there are more than 50 million worldwide, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees -have not been this high globally since World War II.
The event also comes when Erie’s refugee community is on the rise even though the city’s overall population continues to fall.
Erie’s current refugee population is about 10,000, more than half of the nearly 20,000 immigrants who live in Erie, according to estimates by Dylanna Jackson, director of the International Institute of Erie, which has supported refugees and immigrants since 1919.
Those numbers fluctuate based on out-migration among certain groups. Jackson said she relies on local ethnic groups, community associations and churches to help her agency update refugee and immigrant population totals.
Erie, one of the largest resettlement destinations for refugees in Pennsylvania, has a Bhutanese population of about 4,500, the fastest-growing of any refugee group in the city, the institute said.
There are about 6,000 Russians and Ukrainians and nearly 3,500 Bosnians living in Erie, a good portion of whom are no longer refugees and have been naturalized as U.S. citizens, Jackson said.
The institute relocated 537 Somali refugees who arrived in Erie between 2000 and 2014, including 155 in 2014, making the Somalis the second-fastest-growing refugee group in the city. There were 486 Iraqis who arrived in Erie since 2000, the institute said, and 130 Congolese, with 120 of those refugees coming here from the Congo between 2010 and 2014.
According to the Pennsylvania Refugee Resettlement Program, 4,751 refugees from 31 countries have been recorded as arriving in Erie between 2004 and 2014. Nearly half of those refugees were Bhutanese.
In the current fiscal year, 310 refugees arrived in Erie from October through March, which is 23 percent of the 1,331 refugees who have resettled in Pennsylvania during that time period, said the state’s Refugee Resettlement Program.
The growth of Erie’s refugee population also has been documented in the city’s school system. The number of refugees enrolled as students in the Erie School District has nearly doubled, to about 900, over the past decade.
“It’s obvious to see how much our (refugee population) has grown. Just look around. You can see them in every facet of our lives,” Jackson said. “The institute provides a range of services and promotes early self-sufficiency as these individuals rebuild and restart their lives in Erie.”
Erie’s population slid to less than 100,000 for the first time in nearly a century, according to the most recent population estimates reported in May by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Erie Mayor Joe Sinnott on Wednesday said the city might challenge the Census Bureau’s estimate, citing Erie’s rising refugee and immigrant populations, and the possibility that those communities may not have been represented in full when the 2014 estimates were made.
The institute; Multicultural Community Resource Center, 554 E. 10th St.; Catholic Charities, 329 W. 10th St.; and the St. Benedict Education Center, 330 E. 10th St., are the primary groups in Erie helping with relocation and services for refugees.
Combined, these organizations have resettled an estimated average of about 400 refugees annually since 2000.
The Pennsylvania Refugee Resettlement Program shows a similar portrait of Erie’s refugee population, with an annual average of about 460 arriving here from the 2004-05 fiscal year through 2014.
The current fiscal year is on pace for more than 600 refugee arrivals in Erie, according to data from the state program, which would be on par with 2013-14 and before the average for the past decade.
“I hear stories of immense gratitude and the opportunity to take a deep breath in safety and start a new life after being persecuted for who you are and being held in limbo in a camp,” Stacie Blake, director of government and community relations for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said during a recent visit to Erie.
The institute is a field office of the USCRI, which is based in Washington.
“To finally have the opportunity to realize your own dreams, and the dreams for your children, is so significant,” Blake said.
Pradip Upreti’s dream, for much of the 20 years he lived in a refugee camp in eastern Nepal, was to operate a successful business and be his own boss.
That dream is now a reality for the Erie resident and former Bhutanese refugee, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen June 5.
Upreti, 26, has been the owner of the UK Supermarket, 1105 Parade St., since May 2013.
The grocery primarily caters to refugees, its largest customer base coming from Nepal and India, and has many products, including hundreds of different types of spices and lentils that other grocers in the Erie area don’t carry.
Upreti arrived in Erie in November 2009 with his parents, three siblings and two uncles, all of whom still live in the city. When you factor in cousins and other extended family, Upreti said he has about two dozen relatives in Erie.
He started working a month after he arrived in the U.S., a job on an assembly line at a local electronics company. A fellow Bhutanese refugee, who immigrated to Erie a year earlier and was already employed at the same company, helped get Upreti the job.
Still, there were struggles.
Language barriers and transportation issues were at the top of Upreti’s list.
“When you don’t understand what someone is telling you or can’t make someone understand you, that is frustrating,” Upreti said on a recent day from his business as he took a break from stocking shelves of crackers and pastries. “Not having a car, not knowing the bus routes, not having bearings, not knowing where the mall is, where the courthouse is. You get lonely at first.”
Upreti worked hard, honed his English-speaking skills, and a few years later was promoted to a supervisory role.
By this time, he and his two brothers had opened up the market on Parade Street, and business was starting to thrive.
Upreti quit his job at the electronics company to focus on the grocery store, which has increased sales by more than six times in the two years it’s been in business.
“This is always what I wanted,” Upreti said of his early success as an entrepreneur.
He then looked toward the front of his market. His wife, who works at the store, was trying to corral their energetic 4-year-old son while cradling their 10-month-old daughter in her arms.
Information from: Erie Times-News, https://www.goerie.com
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