A New Portrait Series by Shane Wynn Explores Diversity in North Hill
My mother immigrated to Ohio from Austria in 1970, so my childhood was steeped in the stories of her experiences as a newcomer to this place and nostalgia about the mountains of Austria. My mother and her friends co-founded Families for World Understanding (The Experiment in International Living). We hosted international students in our home which helped me see how people from cultures and societies very different from our own are, nonetheless, the same as us in terms of our most basic human needs. I am aware that immigrants and refugees are not always embraced with open arms by some segments of the population, but it’s easy to forget that almost all of us are descended from immigrants. My hope is that these portraits will help Akronites to see that these are people who come from loving families, who are working hard to make a better life for their children and grandchildren, just as our ancestors did for us when they made their journeys to America.
— Shane Wynn
Portrayed in this photograph is Shelly Vang with her daughter Safiah Vang. They are part of an ethnic group called the Hmong people. Originally from China, this particular Hmong sub-group migrated to Laos in the 18th century. The Vang family was part of the Secret War which aided the United States during the Vietnam War. Shelly migrated to the U.S. in 1979, then moved from Michigan to Akron, Ohio in 1991.
“The Hmong community in Akron is…a small community, pretty much based on family. Everybody is related somehow through marriage or whatnot, and because we are a small community, we help each other out in needs like death or marriage. We all come together and help each other out.” – Shelly Vang
“I’m a part of HOOT which means Hmong Ohio of Tomorrow. In the Fall semester we prepare for the Hmong New Year where we have performances like plays…which tell how the older generation came to America. In HOOT we focus on the five pillars which are education, culture, family, leadership, and health.” – Safiah Vang
Portrayed in this photograph is Asha Jafari with her daughter Furaha Akili. Asha was relocated to Akron from the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a refugee in 2016 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“If there’s a problem, like big problem coming to the house, we have a meeting like father, mother, all the kids together have a meeting – how to solve the problem.” – Asha Jafari (interpreted by her son Jafari Akili)
“Here in Akron it’s beautiful and a peaceful place. If she would have money, she would buy a house and live in Akron forever.” – Asha Jafari, interpreted by her son Jafari Akili
“She said the difference from here and in Africa, she said here it’s better to get a job. And Africa there’s no snow, but here it’s too cold and snow too much. That’s a problem for her.” – Asha Jafari, interpreted by her daughter Furaha Akili
Portrayed in this photograph is Phul Tamang with her son Neema Tamang. They are Bhutanese refugees who immigrated to Akron in 2013. Before that, Neema had spent his entire life in a refugee camp in Nepal.
“Now like there are a lot of people that are established. Just think about around the North Hill. There is so many market, there is so many restaurants, people doing local business, and that’s helping the economy.” – Neema Tamang
“I was taking her to the hospital and on the way I ask her ‘Hey Mom, do you want to drive? I’ll teach you.’ and she just look at me and laugh, and then she said only ‘I can’t read it’ and just smiled. It’s make me so emotional…my mom saying this to me. But think about how many immigrants are in the U.S. who couldn’t speak English and read the language…When I want to do something, when I have a dreams and try to get success about it and find some way, like research, talk with peoples, make a friends, do some things. But for them, they have a ton of those kind of dreams, but there is already so big boundaries. They can’t even have a hope to broach that boundaries.”
– Neema Tamang
Portrayed in this photograph is Vince Tassiello with his son Vincent and his grandson Daniel. Vince was born in North Akron in 1936. His mother immigrated to Akron, originally from Italy, in 1918. Like so many other families, the Tassiellos have always been an integral part of the vibrant Italian community in North Akron, gathering at the various Italian clubs, churches, and restaurants.
“In the early 1900s, you know, the history of Akron had quite a few immigrants with Italian and Irish and German; and now it’s just kind of a new wave of history repeating itself…I like it. I think it’s been a positive for the community and the neighborhood.” – Vincent Tassiello, Akron police officer
Portrayed in this photograph is Maria Gomez with her daughter Silvia Landino Pilcher, her granddaughter Kimberly Pilcher, and her great-grandson Zidane Mata. Silvia immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico around 1988, then moved from Florida to Akron around 1993 with her husband who was from Akron originally. Silvia owns a grocery store in North Akron called San Miguel, which offers food items from Mexico and other parts of Latin America.
“(Our customers at San Miguel are) mostly Mexicans and Central Americans: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador…Nicaragua…If you remember like 10 or 12 years ago, there was a lot of empty properties in this place, and I’m so proud of my community because they’ve been purchasing homes lately…and now we have Latino homeowners.” – Silvia Pilcher
Portrayed in this photograph is Paw Eh with her daughter Tha Dah. They are descended from an ethnic group called Karen, native to Myanmar (Burma). They immigrated to Akron in 2011 from a refugee camp in Thailand.
“The Burmese soldiers tried to kill us. They don’t want us to live in their land, like they want everything. They want to own them. We have our land before but they just don’t want it. They want us to move. A lot of people had to die since 1949 til right now. A lot of people.” – Tha Dah
“My dream is…I have one daughter so I want her to be grown up and go to college and be good example to the childrens.” – Tha Dah
Portrayed in this photograph is Mi Kun Paray with her daughter Nai Soe and her granddaughter Vonlaree Cheammon. Originally from Myanmar (Burma), they came to America from a refugee camp in Thailand. They are members of the Mon community in Fort Wayne, Indiana who are visiting Akron for a huge Mon Buddhist festival. Akron has one of the two largest Mon communities in the United States.
“We have a bigger support to do bigger things (in Akron). Our Mon population, the majority of us are Buddhist, so building a pagoda here in America is a very big thing for us. So even though Mon people have been settled in Fort Wayne, Indiana long time ago, longer than Mon people from Akron, Ohio, we’re really impressed that the Mon community in Akron are the first to start building the pagoda. So that’s why we come support the celebrations here.”
“For every community, there is always culture clash among the family. The grandma grandpa doesn’t speak English much, so they trying to push us to speak the national language Mon, right? Then the younger generations who were born here, and then of course their first language that they learn is English. So Mon language…they understand it, but they can’t speak it. In Summertime, we have Mon school, so they can learn to read it. There’s a lot of things that (the older generation) wants to preserve, because they’re afraid that we’re going to lose our culture, and then Mon people are gonna go extinct.”
Portrayed in this photograph is Earl L. Thomas. Mr. Thomas migrated to Akron in 1951 from Columbus, Mississippi. He and his family have lived in North Hill ever since.
Has there been a change in the kind of people that live in North Akron?
“Yeah, you used to didn’t have no riff raff here. You could walk out and leave your door open and go in the store and come back. You had everything in your house that you had before you left.”
“For about ten years, I cleaned (Suddieth) Park, cut the grass, made sure nobody’d go in and mess it up.” We learned it was only after multiple strokes and heart attacks that he gave up caring for the park, but Mr. Thomas still mows lawns around his whole neighborhood on a riding mower.
What lessons would you like to pass down to your great-great-grandchildren?
“Work hard, make you a decent living, stay out of jail. I ain’t never been, and I hope I’ll never go…(gets choked up).”
Earl: “Just about every young person on the Hill know me.”
His granddaughter?: “They call him dad…So many kids, and we don’t know where they come from but they all call him dad, the whole neighborhood. There’s a lot of ‘em that still live around here, and there’s a lot of ‘em that’s left, but when they come back, they come to see dad.”
Earl: “I try to talk to ‘em and tell ‘em different things and send ‘em in the right direction.”
For the locations of these photos showcasing ethnic diversity in North Hill, Akron’s International District, visit Facebook.com/northakroncdc or @shanewynnphotography on Instagram. This project was made possible through the generous support of the North Akron Community Development Corporation with funding from the Knight Foundation.