The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

December 26, 2010

Immigrants still trekking to region


— They may not be the huddled masses coming through the ports at Ellis Island, Philadelphia and Baltimore of yesteryear, but immigrants  are still arriving in the Cambria-Somerset region.

Their numbers are much smaller than the thousands who came to ethnic neighborhoods, including Cambria City, Old Conemaugh Borough, Windber, Nanty Glo and Gallitzin, in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

No longer are the unskilled jobs in steel mills and coal mines the big drawing cards, as during America’s Industrial Revolution.

“Probably starting in the 1990s, we started seeing foreign-born individuals trekking into the area seeking more highly skilled jobs,” Richard Burkert, president of Johnstown Area Heritage Association, said.

“It’s individuals such as doctors, engineers, high-tech people and those in the medical community who are coming, with some exceptions.”

But the new immigrants are primarily coming for the same reasons as the early ones – economic betterment, he said. 

And like the days of old, a significant number may migrate back to the old country, Burkert said.

The number of newer immigrants is unknown, and there appears to be none of the ethnic neighborhoods once found in Johnstown, said Bill Kory, a geography professor at Pitt-Johnstown.

‘Melting in’

“There’s a lot more ‘melting in’ now. They’re not living together in sections,” Kory said.

One area attracting immigrants is higher education, including the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

Pitt-Johnstown President Jem Spectar, who has headed the university since 2007, is a native of Cameroon in west-central Africa.

He has been in America for many years, coming first as a student to study.

Ola Johansson, 42, is an associate professor of geography who is a native of Sweden. He came to the United States in 1996 for graduate school and ended up staying in America because of a recession in his homeland.

Johansson and his wife, Shelley, a native of Kentucky whom he met in Sweden while she was studying Swedish, came to Johnstown in 2002.

That’s when he was hired by Pitt-Johnstown after he graduated from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Johansson has a green card as a permanent resident and has not yet applied for citizenship.

He ended up in Johnstown more by chance “because so few (teaching) jobs were available. I applied for all kinds of jobs, and was offered one here,” Johansson said.

It has been a positive experience for him and his wife, who now works at JAHA.

‘High pluses’

He said one of the “high pluses” is their house is in the friendly neighborhood of Old Westmont Borough and the opportunity to walk in the suburban area. They have a 7-year-old daughter, Linnea.

“We’re not looking to leave Johnstown,” he said. “I have tenure here. And the strength of UPJ is its (smaller) size and a connection with the students and other faculty.”

Johansson is from Kalmar, a town about the size of Johns-town in southern Sweden, where his mother was a middle school teacher and his father in a security alarm business. He studied at Lund University before coming to America.

Although he gets together from time to time with one Swedish friend who also lives in Westmont, Johansson said that he doesn’t know many Swedes in the area.

From time to time, he said, he meets Swedes who have worked at the North American Hoganis plant.

‘Rotate back’

“They live here a couple of years and then rotate back,” he said.

For Kai Guo, 35, a native of China, the attraction of coming to America was the opportunity to study at a university in the west. 

His research on higher institutions of learning convinced him to come to America, where a number of holders of Nobel Prizes in economics live and teach, he said.

Now an assistant professor of economics/finance, Guo obtained a doctorate at the University of Mississippi.

He went there after obtaining a visa in 2002 to come to the United States to study.

As Johansson did, Guo received a job offer from Pitt-Johnstown and thought it was a good choice because of its ties to the main campus in Pittsburgh.

He came here in 2008.

Saying that he teaches and does academic research, Guo plans to stay here “as long as the university will have me.”

Temporary worker

He is classified as a temporary worker with an H1B visa.

The university’s Oakland office is applying for permanent residency for him.

Guo is still adjusting to living in a smaller city after having grown up and living in Wuhan, a city with 9 million residents in central China.

His father, now retired, was an engineer, and his mother, a medical doctor.

Guo and his wife, Sisi, also a native of China whom he married in July, live in Southmont.

She has a law degree that she obtained in China. She did legal research and reviewed contracts for a corporation in China before their marriage because she had not yet passed her bar exam, he said.

Drawing card

For Ukrainian native Leonid “Leo” Kvecher, the drawing card to America was family ties, then it was a job offer which lured him to Johnstown.

He has been employed at Windber Research Institute since 2004 after working for other companies.

One of his former bosses – now at the Windber institute – made the job offer, Kvecher said.

He initially obtained a green card, and then four years later, his American citizenship.

Kvecher, 36, who is single, grew up in Kiev and moved to America in 1994 at the age of 20 to join his father, mother and grandmother in a Jewish–Russian community in Philadelphia.

“It was a family reunion,” he recalled.

Prior to coming to the United States, he had been studying English in the Ukraine and then enrolled at Drexel University in Philadelphia, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and computer science and a master’s degree in computer science.

He said that he considers himself to be a Russian and speaks Russian better than Ukrainian, having grown up under the former Soviet Union regime.

Friends are Americans

But regardless whether his heritage is Russian or Ukrainian, he said that his friends are Americans – he’s found no enclaves of Russians or Ukrainians locally. He lives in Richland Township.

As for staying in Johnstown, Kvecher said, “It depends on work. If the work is good, I stay because there’s not a lot of other opportunity.”

He described Johnstowners as friendly, saying, “I have no problem going into a bar and socializing with people.”

His accent is an icebreaker in conversations, he said.

Kvecher may be an exception because in many of the industries with international ties, the management employees have often come for a few years for an initial startup of operations, Linda Thomson of Johnstown Area Regional Industries said.

Many now have American managers, she said.