SPECIAL REPORT: Erie's New Americans - Erie News Now | WICU & WSEE in Erie, PA

SPECIAL REPORT: Erie's New Americans

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ERIE, Pa. -

We first met Esfir Pikulia in July. The recipient of a Tullio Scholarship from the Erie Housing Authority, she planned to use that money to further her education at Mercyhurst University. The 19-year-old, now in her sophomore year, wants to be an interior designer and architect. She emigrated to the united states from Crimea with her family, six years ago, not speaking any English.

"Transitioning from being a pretty good student, writing good essays, being good at what I was doing and coming here and not knowing anything," Pikulia said when Erie News Now caught up with her following a class at Mercyhurst earlier this fall. "Not being able to do the things I was able to do there (in Crimea) was a little bit difficult for me."

Esfir and her family are among the estimated 18,000-20,000 thousand immigrants or refugees that call Erie home, nearly one-fifth of the city's population. It's been happening for decades, says Dylanna Jackson, executive director of the International Institute of Erie.

More than 470 refugees have settled in Erie from all corners of the globe from Oct. 2016-Sept. 2017 according to the Pennsylvania Refugee Resettlement Program.

1. Syria: 127
2. Somalia: 94
3. Dem. Rep. of Congo: 90
4. Bhutan: 49
5. Ukraine: 22

For the Pikulias, Crimea's volatile economic situation led them to Pennsylvania's Gem City.

"You were unstable," Esfir said. "You didn't know what's going to happen tomorrow. Somebody might just come in and take your business. They didn't want to risk it because they had kids."

While Pikulia is still pursuing her American Dream, Bassam Dabbah has already achieved his. The 37-year-old turned the former bar at the center of a 2016 alleged police brutality case at 12th and Wayne Streets into Sham Market, an ethnic store focusing on Syrian and other Middle-Eastern food.

Dabbah is a refugee from Syria, moving to Erie in 2009. Inside the store, he and three fellow Syrian refugees sell everything from basic produce, to Middle-Eastern lunches.

"Those are guys who have experience as a butcher or a baker," Dabbah said referring to his employees. "That gives me more "backup" to start the business."

Bassam came to the United States before the Syrian civil war, but the violence was escalating. With the writing on the wall, he wanted a better life for his wife and four children.

"Every morning when I wake up, I thank my God because I'm in a safe country, a safe place for my children," Dabbah said when asked what it's like to raise his children in a country that's relatively much safer than his former homeland.

Before coming to Erie, Bassam lived in much larger american cities. But Erie's size, he says, has allowed him to start his new life successfully.

To better assimilate into American society, many refugees and immigrants first come here to the International Institute of Erie.  Here, they can take classes, and receive help getting a job.

"They're learning how to be self-sufficient, which then creates a stronger family unit," Jackson said.

Jackson has been the institute's executive director for over five years. She has seen thousands of people resettle in Erie, including many Bhutanese women, some of whom were taking a financial literacy course during our visit. When it comes to employment, many take jobs in plastics and hospitality.

"Entry-level jobs that allow them to take care of their family," Jackson said. "There's usually one or two people working in their family, if not more."

They also work with Dabbah.

He's not only an interpreter at the International Institute of Erie, fluent in both English and Arabic. He's also a program coordinator, helping immigrants and refugees start their own business, picking up in America where they left off in their old country.

"We do a business plan together. We help them step-by-step," he said.

"Once we got here, they did everything for us," Pikulia reflected on the Institute. "They helped to find an apartment for us. They helped financially, helped with our plane tickets, everything."

Now that he's established in Erie, Dabbah hopes his story will inspire other refugees to seek their American Dream.

"Erie is my home, it's my new home," he said.

Esfir hopes to stay in Erie after she graduates college, to design creative buildings, like the new student union at Mercyhurst-North East, which is loaded with color and new-age architecture.

Her goal: to give back to the city that gave her so much.

"Erie is a place that gave me a lot of opportunities," Pikulia said. "I absolutely love it. I love every single thing about Erie."

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