Dayton City Commissioner
My story: I’m second generation. My dad’s parents came from Lebanon. And my wife is from Bosnia. We met at the University of Dayton. After the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords, the State Department offered scholarships to people who were interested in teaching or public safety. She’s a teacher, and she came to UD for a year and we met then and stayed in contact when she returned to her home country.
Understanding other cultures: Between my sophomore and junior years of college, I spent a summer on the poor side of Santiago, Chile. The first day I got there, we drove past the national stadium of Chile, the Estadio Nacional. Back in the ’70s when the military took over, good people were massacred there. By the time I got there, the military had given the reins back to civilian government and things had calmed down a bit, but it was still crazy to me to by driving right past it because that incident represented the loss of all the things we take for granted here in America: law and order, thoughtfulness and kindness, government protection. It all just disappeared right there in that stadium.
I don’t know if I’ve ever told anyone this story. A seminarian and I went to visit a woman one day. This woman’s husband worked on a fishing boat and was away ten months of the year and would send money back. Her house had a dirt floor, and she only had one teabag. In Chile, when someone visits your home, it’s customary to offer them something to eat or drink, and she only had this one teabag. So she boiled some hot water, and the three of us sat there and talked and shared this one bag of tea, and that was her hospitality. It broke my heart.
I came back on July 4th weekend. I felt proud, priveleged to live here, and that compounded my feeling of responsibility to do something to help others. I got involved in politics.
Welcome: I’d been trying for years to figure out how to make Dayton more immigrant friendly. I worked with Sister Maria Stacy, who’s worked with Spanish-speaking immigrants for years, and she kept me informed on things that were happening and I heard a lot about the problems. As the federal atmosphere got worse for immigrants, it also got worse in Dayton. When Tim Riordan became City Manager and there had been some turnover on the City Commission, people were amenable to doing something more to support immigrants. We lined up with the Dayton Human Relations Council’s Tom Wahlrab and some others who had already been independently working on a study on discrimination against Hispanics in housing. It all came together and they developed the framework.
The point of Welcome Dayton is to make sure immigrants have the same opportunities people here have–nothing less and nothing more. To make sure that we’re doing our part as a city to cut through the barriers they face, whether it’s language issues, not knowing anyone, making sure they have access to education or capital that we as native citizens already have. What would I like to see? I’d like to see a level playing field.
I know it sounds cliche, but it’s achieved through partnership. As a city, we can only do so much. If you look at the initiatives in the plan, only about 10% of them are things we can do as a city, as government. The rest is community. The community expressed the need, and the community has to step up and take care of it. The 140 people who put this plan together are leaders in the community and have some sort of outreach programs with immigrants. If they, and we in government, and those in the community can pull together on this, that leads to better things down the road.
Why Dayton? We have really affordable housing. We have jobs available for those who are willing to work. For lower-skilled immigrants, we have many, many labor jobs–sewing, cleaning, jobs people new to the country often look for. For higher-skilled immigrants, we have a fantastic educational system here, and a lot of people come for the education and stay, like my wife did. With those educational institutions in place, we have a lot of opportunities for immigrants with high skills and a lot of ambition.
And I love the underdog factor here. We’ve been down before. But beginning in 2011, the City has seen a revenue increase, and that means people are working. That means all our work these last few years to trim everything down to the bone to keep operating–that worked, and we’ve reached the turnaround point, and change is coming. We’re a relevant city. We’re a vital city. We’re a vibrant city. The turnaround didn’t kill us, lack of funding from the feds and state didn’t kill us. The fact that we’re able to come back from a 40-year decline and it’s happening during my watch…I’m very proud of that.