The Changing Faces of Arlington

The Changing Faces of Arlington

Last week the county’s Multicultural Advisory Commission invited three recent arrivals to Arlington to the Central Library to discuss the challenges they face as they adapt to living in a new commun

Lovell Cooper, Katrina Survivor

Though water from Lake Pontchartrain began to lap the steps of Lovell Cooper’s mid-city New Orleans home, he assumed the neighborhood had been spared the worst of Hurricane Katrina’s wrath.

Cooper, 31, had seen his street flooded before, and gave little thought to evacuating the city. Yet, unlike past storms, the water did not go down . It seeped through the floors and walls and deluged the lower level of his house, carrying off all items in its path.

“Everything in the house was totally wiped out,” said Cooper, a gregarious music producer and teacher. “My refrigerator met me at the front door. I didn’t know refrigerators could float like that.”

With no end in sight to the water’s furious rise, Cooper and his girlfriend Nadiyah decided to swim the eight blocks to the Convention Center; Nadiyah used a cooler to help keep her head above the water.

After a harrowing day at the Convention Center, Cooper began to hitchhike to Baton Rogue and then Houston. Once in Houston, Cooper made the decision to travel to Arlington, where his mother had moved last year to teach at Carlin Springs Elementary School.

Cooper, his girlfriend and 11 other relatives were one of the 150 families who came to Arlington in the weeks after the hurricane devastated the Gulf Coast,.

Though most of his relatives lived in the Big Easy, Cooper was born in Washington and attended high school in Annandale. After graduating from Grambling State, he decided to stay in New Orleans and pursue his two passions: teaching and hip-hop.

He split his time between teaching high school social studies and working with some of the city’s most renowned rap artists. Cooper invested more than $80,000 in a home studio and was a regular fixture on New Orleans’ acclaimed hip-hop radio stations.

WHEN THE COOPERS arrived in Arlington, they were overwhelmed by the generosity of residents and the efficiency of the county government. One man gave them a house to live in for a year, and the local chapter of the Red Cross provided food, toiletries and other services.

Cooper has been trying to break into the Washington hip-hop scene and has already connected with some of the area’s most respected DJs. His girlfriend has enrolled in the Art Institute of Washington and is continuing to pursue an acting career.

Although the outpouring of support has helped stabilize his family and allowed them to adapt to their new surroundings, Cooper worries that the generosity may not be as forthcoming now that the horrors of Katrina have dropped off the front pages of the newspapers.

While the Art Institute of Washington gave his girlfriend a free ride for the fall semester, they have not extended that offer to the current term, forcing her to take out potentially crippling student loans.

“People very easily forget that we are still going through a transition,” he said. “We lost everything. I hope people continue to give until we can get back on our feet.”

Cooper has been back to New Orleans twice in recent months and was shocked by how little of the city had been restored. The family house lies in ruins and all of his recording equipment was lost.

“I got sick when I went into the city,” he said. “The whole place is destroyed. The city is rebuilding but it’s going to take some time and work.”

Cooper is unsure of his next move, but with his parents settled in Arlington he is leaning toward staying in the area.

“I always wanted to come back here, but I didn’t want to come under these circumstances,” he said. “So this could be a blessing.”

Ahmed Osman, Refugee from Sudan

It had been months since Ahmed Osman was forced to flee Sudan because of his work as a journalist and human rights activist, and most of his relatives still did not know his whereabouts.

Only when they heard his voice on an Egyptian radio station were they assured that he had found a safe haven to continue his work in opposition to Gen. Omar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir’s oppressive regime.

After overthrowing a democratically elected government in a 1989 coup, al-Bashir began to consolidate his grip on the country by dissolving parliament, banning all political parties and cracking down on the press.

Osman was fired from his job at a radio station, and no other news outlet would hire him due to pressure from the government. Fearing for his life, Osman fled to Egypt in 1998.

“The most difficult situation you can face is to leave your county for political reasons in order to keep your life,” said Osman, 42.

After a year in Egypt, Osman sought political asylum in the United States and moved to Arlington. On his arrival at the airport, Osman was shocked to see people of so many different races and ethnicities living in the region. Within minutes of landing, Osman found an Arabic speaker to help him navigate through the airport.

In Arlington, “I thought I would find just American people,” Osman said. “I felt comfort when I find a guy who spoke Arabic.”

OSMAN'S INITIAL YEAR in the county was one full of hardships and loneliness as he struggled to adjust to a new culture and language while his wife and three children were thousands of miles away.

He worked the night shift at a 7-11 and had a stint as a washroom attendant at a Tysons Corner hotel. Osman sent all the money he could back to Sudan to his family.

“Life was really difficult,” he said. “You miss your culture, your language, your family. You start life as a newborn.”

In his spare time Osman studied English and began to learn more about computers. He became a community liaison in the computer lab of Arlington Mill Community Center, teaching other recent immigrants how to use technology.

“I developed knowledge in computers,” he said. “That [was] a big deal in turning my life into something really good.”

In 2000 Osman secured a job as a government contractor and was finally able to bring his wife and children to Arlington.

His daughter is in the third grade, and his twins are in the fifth grade at Carlin Springs Elementary School, where Osman now works as a community development specialist and a translator.

In July Osman became a United States citizen, and his wife is expected to do the same next month.

A constant challenge for Osman and his wife is finding ways to preserve the Sudanese culture and share it with their children. The family cooks traditional Sudanese food every night, and the three children continue to learn Arabic, a task made easier by the Internet.

Though Osman says he misses his home country, he and his wife have made the decision not to return, even if the political situation improves.

“We decided to make this our home,” he said. “This is the first time me and my wife are together with our kids. We get to see our kids grow here.”

Wui-Ping Yap Immigrant from Malaysia

On Sept. 11 2001, Wui-Ping Yap awoke to her 25th birthday in her Delaware home and began to prepare for her visit the following day to Arlington to find housing.

“Then all hell broke lose,” she said.

Her parents, hearing the news, wanted Yap to take the next flight home to Malaysia, where she was born. But she was supposed to start working as an international trade consultant in the coming weeks and had decided to live in Arlington. After hearing of Yap’s plight, a woman offered her the use of her basement, and Yap has lived here ever since.

“I refuse to move out of the county,” she said. “Arlington is very diverse, and there are so many different communities here.”

In 1997 Yap left Malaysia to attend college in snowy St. Cloud, Minn., because the school enabled foreign students to pay in-state tuition. After earning her degree, Yap moved to Delaware to pursue a master’s degree in international relations.

Yap is active in the region’s small Malaysian community, and co-founded a cultural dance group that has performed in Arlington on multiple occasions.

“For me dance is a passion and an interest,” she said. “You have to aggressively pursue it if you want to keep a connection [to Malaysian culture].”

Yap uses a Web-cam to keep in touch with family in Malaysia, and readily admits to missing the food of her native country. “Nothing beats home-cooked food,” she said.

THE TRANSITION TO American life and culture has not always been easy, even for someone who learned English before she arrived. Yap has experienced both trivial misunderstandings — like the belief that the Super Bowl was a bowling competition — and more lasting differences.

Yap said she finds people in Arlington “less friendly” than those in her native land. Whereas Asian societies tend to be centered on family and a sense of community, here one “needs to be able to stand on one’s own two feet,” she said. This reliance on individuality took time to adjust to, especially since in Malaysia there is less pressure for children to move out of the parents’ home. “We’re a little more spoiled,” Yap said.

As a member of the Multicultural Advisory Commission, Yap works to promote residents’ awareness of the rich cultural diversity of the county.

Recent immigrants to America have to overcome both language barriers and challenges adapting to everyday life in Arlington, such as learning to use a computer, Yap said.

She hopes both the county government and citizen groups like the Multicultural Advisory Commission can generate new ways to help immigrants adapt to their new surroundings. “Arlington has a lot to offer but we need to figure out a way to share our resources and services with new immigrants,” she said.

Like many others in Arlington, she is concerned that the rising cost of living will force immigrant families to move to neighboring counties.

Yap said she is disturbed to see that many communities in Arlington tend to socialize only within their ethnic groups. She hopes that the work of the Multicultural Advisory Commission will encourage residents to seek out neighbors they usually would not associate with.

“Being diverse doesn’t just bring us together,” she said. “We take it for granted that we are diverse and therefore don’t need to interact.”