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The Refugee Haven South of Seattle

Nearly 40% of Tukwila’s population is foreign-born.

By Karen Weise, photographs by McNair Evans
September 15, 2016

After the 1990s tech boom drove up housing costs in Seattle, refugee resettlement agencies began placing immigrants in the neighboring city of Tukwila. The suburb had 834 foreign-born residents in 1990, according to U.S. census figures. Today almost 8,000 residents—about 40 percent of Tukwila’s population—are foreign-born.

Photographer: McNair Evans for Bloomberg Businessweek

Fahmo Lafoley, 42, was a Somali refugee in Kenya for years before Jewish Family Services helped her resettle in Washington in 2014. Several times a week she shops at Saar’s Super Saver Foods, a market that caters to immigrants.

Photographer: McNair Evans for Bloomberg Businessweek

On a Sunday evening in August, residents of an apartment complex gathered after two men were shot in an adjacent parking lot. One, an 18-year-old, died. Tukwila has one of the highest crime rates in the state. The police have said more than 80 percent of people arrested in the city aren’t Tukwila residents.

Photographer: McNair Evans for Bloomberg Businessweek

Jovi Lee was born in Laos, where he says his father spied for the U.S. during the Vietnam War. His family fled when Saigon fell. “I remember our seven-day journey walking in the jungle,” he says. “It’s kind of like what’s happening now in Syria.” A church sponsored his family to resettle in Hillsboro, Kan. Lee coordinates interpreters for the Pierce County court system. He attends a Tukwila church that holds services in Mien, a Southeastern Asian language.

Photographer: McNair Evans for Bloomberg Businessweek

Several hundred people a year take English classes with Refugee Women’s Alliance, a nonprofit that receives state funding for workforce training. Kaka Beron (in pink), 44, arrived from Eritrea in June. Her husband, Jafar, has already found work at nearby Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Her classmate, Purukeriya Tezirije (in blue), 43, moved from the Democratic Republic of Congo last year.

Photographer: McNair Evans for Bloomberg Businessweek

Abdi Hussein’s team, Bantu Youth Society, played for the championship during Somali Soccer Week Seattle. He came to the U.S. via Kenya after his parents fled Somalia. “I’ve been in America more than I’ve been in Kenya,” he says.

Photographer: McNair Evans for Bloomberg Businessweek

The Vietnamese Martyrs Parish of the Archdiocese of Seattle throws its annual Summer Festival.

Photographer: McNair Evans for Bloomberg Businessweek

Abdi Ahmed, 24, fled Somalia as a teenager, without his family, and for several years lived in South Africa, where he didn’t feel safe. “The situation got worse—the people were not welcoming,” he says. He came to the U.S. last year. “I needed to have a normal life,” he says.

Photographer: McNair Evans for Bloomberg Businessweek

Chandra Biswa, 14, shown with her niece, came to the U.S. from Nepal in 2013 and is starting at Tukwila’s Foster High School, where students come from more than 50 countries and speak 44 languages. Foster’s new principal has turned the school around, increasing graduation rates to 70 percent in 2015 from 55 percent in 2014.

Photographer: McNair Evans for Bloomberg Businessweek

Hala Al Jandeel, 48, came to Tukwila three years ago from Jordan, where she taught math and was a school principal. The King County Library System asked her to start a weekly story time in Arabic and English, which mostly serves families from Iraq, Jordan, and Syria. The job is rewarding, she says. “The kids now read words and whole sentences. I teach the oldest grammar now—subject, object.”

Photographer: McNair Evans for Bloomberg Businessweek

Retaj Al’Khfaji, 8, together with her mother, grandmother, older brother, and younger sister, fled Baghdad for Turkey on a multiday bus ride more than three years ago. In early 2016 they were resettled in Tukwila. The local elementary school, she says, is hard, but “I like it.”

Photographer: McNair Evans for Bloomberg Businessweek

General manager Kyle Saars says sales at Saar’s Super Saver Foods have risen about 16 percent in the past year as the market diversified its offerings to cater to Tukwila’s immigrant community. “When people come in, see the store, and then go tell their friends or their family, ‘Hey, they got this, this, this,’ I think that’s what’s really driven the growth,” he says. The store now sells almost 45,000 different products. “A lot of items surprise us,” he says. “One of the big ones in our Middle Eastern section is actually dates. I thought a date was a date, but there’s five, six varieties of dates, and we sell just a ton of them. We make sure we have the lowest price on them.”

Photographer: McNair Evans for Bloomberg Businessweek

Girls play in the Somali Soccer Week Seattle tournament. The 3,000 students enrolled in the Tukwila School District speak more than 80 languages.

Photographer: McNair Evans for Bloomberg Businessweek

Mt. Rainier looms south of Tukwila, Wash., a city of 20,000 adjacent to Seattle. In 1990 more than 80 percent of Tukwila’s residents were white. By 2014 the city was about two-thirds minority.

Photographer: McNair Evans for Bloomberg Businessweek

An uncle and nephew eat at Marwa Halal Cuisine, one of the Tukwila businesses started by Somali refugees. In the past decade, most of Tukwila’s refugees have come from Bhutan, Myanmar, Iraq, and Somalia.

Photographer: McNair Evans for Bloomberg Businessweek

Many of the city’s small businesses are owned and run by immigrants. They offer accounting services and driving lessons, sell abaya head coverings and international calling cards, and make tacos and cardamom-spiced tea.