Home Away From Home

by Lindsey Nolen // photos by Agnes Lopez

New arrivals to Jacksonville coming from foreign lands is nothing new. It’s been happening since the mid-1500s, when French Huguenots sailed up the St. Johns River and decided to build a settlement not far from present day Downtown. They are still coming, by boat, plane, car and other means. And while Jacksonville doesn’t have the reputation of being an international city, per se, approximately 15 percent of the metro area’s population speaks a language other than English at home and, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 10 percent of residents now are foreign-born—both fitting statistics in a city with an NFL team owned by an immigrant, the only one in the league.

The city’s immigrant population has steadily increased since the 1990s and estimates are that by 2050, nearly one-quarter of residents will be foreign born. Filipinos, Syrians, Dominicans, Vietnamese, Haitians, Bosnians—all are well represented in Northeast Florida. And their numbers are increasing. Asian immigrants are the region’s largest ethnic group, making up some 40 percent of the foreign-born population, and it is generally accepted that greater Jacksonville is home to one of the largest Arab communities in the country.
Of course, immigrants, both legal and illegal, are hot topics nationally. Border walls, travel bans and immigration reform are subjects of heated political debates. While politicians wrangle with the issue, the new arrivals continue to come to Jacksonville, some traveling half-way around the world. Their individual reasons vary but most are seeking the same thing—the chance at a better life. Here are some of their stories.
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Fortunate enough to have been able to travel the world through his career as an information technology security analyst, 34-year-old Courage Amegashiti had seen the opportunities existing elsewhere. Although he spent periods of time living in both Europe and Asia, he was born near the West African city of Tema, Ghana.
“Like any other African country, Ghana had its own challenges and downsides, such as poor sanitation, bad road networks in most parts of the country, lack of good drinking water, power outages, etc,” Amegashiti says.
Yet, after he met his then-girlfriend, Kim, online while living in Beijing, the new couple began exploring U.S. cities together, such as New York, Chicago, Las Vegas and Orlando, on short vacations. After learning that his now-wife was expecting their first child, Amegashiti made the decision to relocate to Jacksonville in 2013 to be with them.
“Just as any new resident of a place, there is always a level of anxiety and being nervous of the unknown and the future,” Amegashiti says. “But I am an optimistic person and always believe change is good, and I welcomed any new challenges that came with my relocation to the U.S.”
Amegashiti adds that having lived and worked in other countries made it easier to adjust to life here, but initially he did experience challenges such as utilizing public transportation. Yet, he was able to obtain a car, find employment and remains determined to succeed and support his family.
“This is an amazing city to live and work in,” says Amegashiti, who now resides off Gate Parkway near St. Johns Town Center. “Jacksonville will offer a lot to anyone wanting to come, live and work here. However, they must also be willing to play their part in the contribution of the growth of this amazing city.”
Although he is only aware of a handful of other natives of African countries also living in Jacksonville, he believes more will immigrate here in the years to come due to the city’s fast-paced growth.
“I have never regretted moving to the U.S., and, specifically into Jacksonville,” Amegashiti says. “I believe I want my family to be part of the Jacksonville growth story some day in the future.”
• • •
Growing up on a farm in Punjab, in the northern part of India, Gurdev Singh wished for a better future with more opportunity for himself and his family. So, in 1995, he packed what belongings he had and chose to immigrate to the U.S. alone.
“I didn’t want to rely on anyone. I wanted to be okay on my own before I brought my family over,” Singh, now 61 years old, says. “I was excited to come.”
Although he already had a degree in economics at the time of his move, when Singh first landed in America, he settled in Santa Ana, California, where he decided to open a restaurant, India House Restaurant. Soon after, he moved again to Miami, followed by Colorado, and continued owning and operating eateries. Yet, after one vacation to Jacksonville to escape the cold Colorado weather, he decided to relocate once more. Gathering his belongings he moved to Jacksonville in 1997.
“When I got here, Jacksonville was so calm and quiet. I started looking for a place to open a restaurant and found my current store, which used to be a Mexican restaurant,” Singh recalls. India’s Restaurant has been a Baymeadows Road landmark for two decades. “I’m very happy. I like this location.”
In part because of the business opportunities that Singh enjoyed upon settling in Jacksonville, he was able to move his family over from India. Ultimately, his two children received local educations and both went on to college. His son attended the University of North Florida for a business degree, while his daughter attended Stetson University and is now a practicing physician.
So, after 20 years in Jax, business success and opportunity for him and his family, Singh says he has no plans to relocate again anytime soon.
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Alternatively from the southernmost state in India, 38-year-old Krishna Achath was born in Kerala, but was reared in the small industrial town of Faridabad. Here, growing up was simple and rustic—there were no phones or color televisions, and his parents’ only goal was to put Achath and his older sister through school.
Achath’s family worked hard for what they had, little as it was. His earliest memory of someone leaving the country for increased opportunity stemmed from learning that his uncle, the eldest of 13 siblings, had gone to work on an estate farm in Malaysia when he was 13 years old. From there, his uncle would send back the majority of his earnings to help pull the family out of poverty. Later, Achath’s father also left home to work multiple jobs in Bombay in order to supplement the family’s income.
“When the family is struggling, everyone always helped each other,” Achath says. “Everyone remains so connected because of what our family went through.”
Furthermore, because Achath knew that earning a livable wage and being able to aid in supporting his family meant gaining admittance into college, in the eighth grade he decided to commit to the path of becoming an engineer. Although he had loved to paint as a child, from then on, he dedicated himself to studying. During his last two years of high school he remembers studying upwards of 13 hours a day, non-stop.
“Everybody in India was self-motivated, because there was no way out of poverty. If you wanted to get out of the struggle and help your family and achieve any dream there was, you had to become either an engineer or a doctor,” he says. “It’s extremely difficult to get into a school there because there’s so many qualified and hard-working kids.”
Despite the extreme competition, Achath went on to obtain his bachelor’s degree and was determined to continue his education, and to one day rid himself and his family of their day-to-day financial struggles. Upon graduating, Achath learned that one of his cousins (of which there are more than 100) was living in Chicago. Through letters and later email exchanges he was told that his cousin wanted him to study hard so that he could eventually come to the U.S., too. His cousin had also invited him to meet at the Mumbai airport one day as he was traveling through.
“He sat me down and said, ‘You have to come to the United States,’” Achath recalls. “That was an epiphanic moment. He said the United States provides you with so many avenues and gives you opportunities to fly in every direction.”
From that moment on, Achath began researching mechanical engineering master’s degree programs in the U.S., applying to six different schools. Weighing the different strengths of each school, he ultimately chose to attend the University of Florida because of its highly regarded engineering program, and because he had a friend from India also attending the school. (He now jokes that his friend only wanted him to enroll so that he would be eligible to enter the lottery for football game tickets.)
With only enough money for one semester, a ticket to America and two suitcases, Achath boarded a one-way flight to Chicago to stay with his cousin for one week, arriving on July 28, 2002. He then flew to Gainesville and began living on-campus.
“Before I left my cousin told me not to waste time watching TV, not to waste time sleeping in the afternoon and not to be in the shadow of other Indian people. Instead, he told me to get out, interact, socialize and do everything,” Achath says. “It was remarkable advice.”
Acting on that insight, during Achath’s time spent at UF he did not limit himself, and even began to paint again. His first roommate gave him a used set of drums and from it grew a deep love of music, as well as for the arts overall. He realized that his passions extended far beyond employment and financial success, and that his other interests are what really make him who he is today.
With this newfound self-awareness, after graduating with his master’s degree, Achath chose to join a consulting firm in Jacksonville in June of 2004. During his years here, he went from living in Arlington to Mandarin, and now resides in Riverside (which he credits as the reason for his increased artistic endeavors). Three years ago Achath founded his own engineering firm, Building Forensics, Inc. Extremely grateful to have been granted the opportunity to pursue his own “American dream,” including the ability to express himself through his work, art and music, Achath now considers Jacksonville his home away from home. “Without a doubt, for me and many others I know, there is no place better than this country,” he says.
• • •
Being able to achieve his dreams is also what brought 28-year-old Nino Franz Herrera to Jacksonville from the Philippines nine years ago. Although he recalls his life back in a town not far from Manila being “pretty normal,” with both of his parents having been employed and owning their own house, his father was petitioned to relocate by his brother already living in Jacksonville. In 2003, after 25 years, the petition request was finally approved and Herrera’s father chose to immigrate.
“My father and my older brother came first, and since my siblings, mother and I were dependents of my dad we basically got included on his petition papers,” Herrera says. “After my father and brother moved to Jacksonville, my older sister came four years later, followed by me and my mother three months after that.”
Upon first arriving in town and settling into Riverside, Herrera remembers being eager to find work and to help his family pay for their new home. Through the help of a family friend, he was able to secure a job in less than a month and in 2016, after years of hard work, he opened his own small business, Nino’s Pinoy Express, located at Oak Hill Village on 103rd Street.
“Having a big community of Filipinos here in Jacksonville was very helpful to my family. There’s actually a lot of Filipinos living on the Westside and at the Beaches,” Herrera says. “Being in Jacksonville has truly been a great opportunity, especially for me. My business seems to be growing fast at this moment, so I know even more opportunities are coming.”
• • •
One of six children who grew up sharing a single bedroom in Łańcut, Poland, 37-year-old hairstylist Grazyna Szmuc chose to immigrate to the U.S. in 2004 in search of greater opportunities. She remembers standing in line as a child with ration stamps to receive single items of food or milk during the country’s Communist era. As she entered into her teenage years and young adulthood Poland became a democracy, yet there were still few jobs suitable for her artistic talents. Pursuing her dreams remained difficult but Szmuc was undeterred.
“I decided to pursue my passion for hair,” says Szmuc, who was attending night classes in management with the aim of starting her own business. “It still wasn’t enough, so I started traveling a bit outside of Poland for seasonal jobs. The more I traveled, the more I realized there were many more opportunities outside of Poland and I was driven to know more.”
As a result, at age 22, she applied and was granted a visa. With only one suitcase and $700, she flew to New York to live with her great aunt. Although Szmuc did not speak English when she arrived, she studied hard, learned the language, obtained a New York cosmetology license and began working at an Aveda Hair Salon.
“I travel so much, and I always dreamed to live in the beautiful, warm weather,” says Szmuc, who moved to Jacksonville in 2006. “I had friends here, so I moved down to pursue my passion for hair sculpture training at Davines.”
Some years later, Szmuc took yet another leap and opened her own business, Grazyna Hair Design. “I’m so happy America led me to success and to all of my dreams,” she says. She officially became an American citizen on July 28, 2017. “I feel like I belong in this city, and that it is the home where I want to raise my four-year-old son Nikolas. The opportunities that he will have living here will shape his whole life.”
Upon moving here, Szmuc has been able to find a rich mixture of many different cultures, including many Polish immigrants who she has met through the Polish-American club. Her favorite part of both Jacksonville and the U.S. remains that they are made up of people from all over the world striving to reach their dreams. “Jacksonville is a place that is so inclusive and supportive of entrepreneurship. I’m grateful for all of the support I’ve received from my clients here.”
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For 42-year-old Marta Waller, growing up in El Vergel, Mexico, meant no electricity and having to walk with a bucket to the creek to get water. At age 16 she decided to move to the city of Juarez, but even there she remembers life being a struggle.
Once her son Christian was born, she knew something had to change. Weighing her options, and at the advice of family members already living in Los Angeles, Waller decided to apply for a visa to immigrate to the U.S.
“Life was hard in Mexico. I wanted to start all over,” Waller says. “I have a lot of family in California, so I just moved to Los Angeles. There, I met my husband Brett, and we got married the year after.”
As her new husband’s family all were living in Jacksonville, soon after the couple decided to relocate east to be closer to them. Enjoying her new home, Wallers also chose to apply for a permit to stay in the U.S. longer, and went on to further obtain a green card.
“At first moving to Jacksonville was tough because in Mexico I never had a car, never learned to drive and didn’t go to school,” she says. “I didn’t know any English, and 11 years ago there were not as many Hispanic people in Jacksonville as there are now.”
Despite these challenges, she learned how to drive, speak English and eventually opened her own cleaning business. While her lifestyle change and personal success has given her great reward since immigrating to Jacksonville,  she is most appreciative that her now 21-year-old son is enrolled in college at the University of Central Florida.
“Nobody in my family ever went to college,” Waller says. “I never imagined my son would go on to be in college. My life is totally different now.” The two have also applied to become U.S. citizens. Ultimately, Christian became a citizen this past October, and Waller was granted citizenship two months later in December.
• • •
Maira Martelo, a native of Cartagena, Colombia, moved to Jacksonville in 2005 to pursue her doctoral degree. Driven to constantly strive for higher learning, Martelo had already obtained a bachelor’s back in her home country.
“Life in Colombia was great. I was a college professor and I wanted to really pursue my graduate education,” Martelo, 45, explains. “I was really engaged in my life in Colombia with different communities, services and non-profits.”
However, when she won a scholarship to go to Mexico in pursuit of a master’s degree, she immediately seized the opportunity. Upon completing the program, Martelo’s next goals became learning to speak English and obtain her doctoral degree. As she already had a friend living in Jacksonville, Martelo decided there was no better way to learn English than to come and live in the U.S.
“To get a doctoral degree, you usually have to have a good level of English. I came here first for that reason and went to the University of North Florida,” Martelo says. “Here there were so many more opportunities.” That said, other elements of life in Jacksonville required more adjustment, like significantly less social interaction.
“In Colombia, from the minute you leave your house your neighbors know who you are and what you’re doing,” Martelo says. “Coming here, that was a huge cultural shock in the beginning. Everyone here lives more behind closed doors.”
Twelve years after initially moving to the River City to pursue her higher education, Martelo now owns a house, has many friends and says her entire life is here. She adds that she cannot compare Jacksonville with Colombia to say one is better than the other. Instead they are simply different. “There are so many educational opportunities in this country, and I think the city has been very welcoming. I wouldn’t recommend someone get a Ph.D just to come here, because it is a lot of work, but I’m glad I did.”
• • •
While for some coming to Jacksonville is a dream, for others, like 37-year-old Heidi Suarez, it was the only answer to her nightmares. She grew up in Buena Ventura, Colombia, at a time when life there was relatively peaceful. However, parts of the South American country became increasingly dangerous because of drug traffickers and Civil War. To escape the terror, and so that her mother could seek out more employment opportunities, the two moved to the city of Cali.
Years later, it was there that Suarez met her husband. As he was a businessman who owned a farm and a convenience store in the town of Satinga Nariño, she chose to move there with him.
Eventually, guerrilla fighters made their way to the town and began demanding money to essentially guarantee the family’s safety. With two children, Suarez’s husband normally complied, but one month finances were tight and he told the guerrillas that he was unable to pay them. In response, they beat him.
After that, the entire family went into hiding, until one day the guerrillas learned of their whereabouts. Suarez’s husband yelled for Heidi and her children to escape through a back window in the building in which they were hiding. He was unable to get away. They beat him again, but this time to the point where he needed to be admitted to a hospital, unable to walk.
For Suarez, this was the final straw. She knew she and her family needed to leave Colombia, although her husband was unsure if he wanted to leave because of the family members that would be left behind. Yet, with the help of a town leader, Suarez and her children were able to obtain the necessary paperwork to begin the refugee process.
During the application process, her husband, now wheelchair-bound, was able to make it to Cali as well, but there was a bounty placed on his head by the guerrillas. For the safety of his family, he insisted that they go ahead of him to a refugee camp in Ecuador. They did.
It was there Suarez learned from a family friend that her husband had been beheaded by the criminal rebels. As if her unimaginable grief were not enough, she knew that oftentimes the guerrillas hired people to go into the refugee camps in search of others on which to seek retribution.
One day, a boy at the camp began asking her youngest child about his father, and what his father’s name was. From there, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), who oversees the camp, ordered that Suarez and her children be placed on the next flight to Miami.
Once in Miami, the U.S. Department of State determined that they would next be flown to Jacksonville. Then, in June of 2017, Suarez and her children arrived at JIA where they were met by Lutheran Social Services (LSS), an organization that assists refugees in establishing a new life.
LSS helped Suarez secure a job as a housekeeper at a hotel and enrolled her children in school. Later, the organization further assisted her in finding an alternative position as an assembly line worker to better fit the needs of her children and their schedules.
In just 90 days, Suarez was deemed “self-sufficient,” and her children, Hellen, 11, and Dovan, 9, say they love school. “It’s good here, but hard,” Suarez, who resides off Philips Highway, explains. “I want people to know what Lutheran Social Services means to me. They are like family, and I give thanks for this opportunity and so that my kids can have any future.”
Just as in the case of the Suarez family, LSS has been helping people escape desperate situations for 36 years. With a focus on refugee resettlement and placement, the organization has helped thousands of refugees resettle and find employment here in Jacksonville.
“It’s not always a choice to come here,” says Cristina Parcell, international programs operations manager and director of refugee services at LSS. “Refugees are coming because they have nowhere else to go, they can’t go home and they’ve been at these camps.”
Parcell explains that what the Department of State tries to do is put them with a U.S. tie or sponsor, being a family member or someone they knew from their community back home. This allows the refugee the ability to resettle alongside a familiar face. The Department may also consider the demographic (language, culture, etc.) of the family when deciding in which city to place them.
“The one thing that we’re very fortune about in Jacksonville is that we’re a very diverse city,” Parcell says. “Refugees typically like to resettle here because we have a community that is also very welcoming. So, we have seen all walks of life from South America to the Middle East to Eastern Europe.”
In fact, many of our city’s recent international arrivals are coming here directly because of crisis situations at home. For example, when turmoil unfolded in Syria, many Syrians sought refuge here.
“It really varies on world events and what the State Department is able to process through,” Parcell says. “Once here, their biggest challenge is cultural acclimation.”
That’s where LSS steps in to help, all within a short window of 90 days. From the moment a refugee steps foot at Jacksonville International Airport LSS welcomes them and brings them to where they will be staying on their road to self-sufficiency.
“The real action happens within the first 30 days,” Parcell says. “It’s a very fast, overwhelming process of getting them a Social Security number, their health screenings done, enrolling children in school and having them employed. It’s done this way because we have to show the government that by day 90 they are able to support themselves.”
The organization has a strong track record, claiming 99 percent of LSS refugees are self-sufficient and working by day 90. Furthermore, Parcell says that the turnover rate of these refugee employees is low, they show up on time and genuinely want to work. “Once they are here and we have them employed, then we have a certain amount of time to get them their residency, and then perhaps reach back out for citizenship, which most pursue.”
While pursuing citizenship is the final step for many solidifying life here in America, it does not mean that immigrants have abandoned their roots. Rather, they are merely planting additional roots from which they can continue to grow and flourish. From places spanning across Jacksonville, these community members are what make the city’s own “melting pot” unique and whole. Without these amazing residents and their stories of immigration, from all over the world, no doubt Northeast Florida would be much less flavorful.