The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Home Lands

December 26, 2010

'They really accepted us' | Newcomers find Cambria-Somerset region to be inviting

When Dr. Justin Boccardo and his wife, Dr. Maria Paula Jofre, told family in Argentina they were moving to Johns-town, Jofre’s grandfather went to his map collection.

“My grandfather is a map fanatic,” Jofre said.

“He takes out this old yellow map of the United States, and says, ‘I don’t see your city here.’ We knew we were coming to a small community.”

Jofre and Boccardo are among a continuing trickle of immigrant professionals, drawn to the region’s medical and scientific opportunities.

‘American dream’

“We came to this country to achieve the American dream,” Egypt-native Dr. Samuel Massoud of Richland Township said.

“A lot of people ask, ‘What is the American dream?’ For me, it is this: If you work hard, one day you will achieve what you are looking for. As simple as it sounds, it is not doable in a lot of places.”

Although professional opportunities bring newcomers here, they say it is the Cambria and Somerset communities’ continued heritage of welcoming immigrants that has made it a true home.  

“They are used to having different cultures in the community,” Kamal Gella of Westmont said.

“That is a big plus because they accept people openly. They accept new ideas and all kinds of people.”

Gella is a program manager at Concurrent Technologies Corp. His wife, Dr. Jyothi Gella, is an internal medicine physician with offices at 600 Franklin St. in the city’s Kernville section.

They came to the United States from India in 1993 and arrived in Johnstown in June 1995, after stops in Arkansas, Texas and Alabama, as Kamal Gella continued his education.

Here, Jyothi Gella joined Conemaugh’s residency program, a path that brought several of the newcomers to Johnstown.

Massoud interviewed at 17 hospitals from Rochester N.Y., to Jacksonville, Fla., but  cherishes his trip to Johnstown.

“It was in the winter, and I drove with my wife from Virginia. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Downtown,” he recalled. “I woke up in the morning, a nice snow was coming down. Not a heavy snow, but it was on the trees in downtown. The picture was so perfect.

“Somehow, I fell in love with the city before they even offered me the job.”

Massoud and his wife, Theresa, returned to Virginia, but soon received the job-offer letter from Memorial Medical Center.

“This city welcomed me and my family in more ways than I ever thought,” Massoud said.

‘Special holidays’

Like the previous waves of immigrants who preceded them to Johnstown, these newcomers also bring their own heritage and traditions.

“We have special holidays,” Hai Hu, deputy chief scientific officer, said at Windber Research Institute.

“Spring Festival is the biggest. It’s also called Chinese New Year.

“We still observe those here.”

In the Urkaine, New Year’s is a bigger celebration than Christmas, Leonid Kvecher said.

The former Soviet Union republic still draws on its Orthodox Church traditions, marking New Year’s by the Julian calendar, which puts the holiday on Jan. 14.

Family celebration

“It is more of a family celebration,” Kvecher said at Windber, where he is a data manager.

Argentina’s culture is closely tied with Europe’s, so the differences here aren’t as striking, Boccardo said.

“One thing with Christmas, we have snow here,” Boccardo said. “In Argentina, it’s summer.”

Santa Claus is more overwhelming in the United States, he said. In Argentina, children learn that baby Jesus brings their presents.

An Orthodox Christian, Massoud said it has been an adjustment to see Christmas celebrated in December. But his family adapted by marking Christmas twice each year.

“We have to accommodate Dec. 25, but at the same time, we wanted to keep the traditional Jan. 7 date,” Massoud said.

Because their numbers are small, newcomers from different nations and ethnic groups today largely celebrate their heritage privately with family or travel to join larger groups with the same heritage.

Immigrants from India have the largest number of local professionals.

Own organization

Like the European immigrants of old, they have formed their own social and educational organization, the Johnstown Regional Indian Subcontinent Association.

“We have an Indian association,” Dr. Rajsekhar Devineni said.

“We get together and celebrate the festivals. Last month, we had the Festival of Lights. The Festival of Colors comes in March.”

George Iida, WRI’s director of cell biology, teaches math on weekends at the Pittsburgh Japanese School. It also gives him a chance to catch up with his students’ parents – mostly Pittsburgh-area university faculty members.

“There is only one more Japanese in Johnstown that I know,” Iida said.

Church in Altoona

Massoud attends church at St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in Altoona, which is associated with Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the largest Christian church in Egypt.

He can relate to European Roman Catholic and Orthodox immigrants who came to Johnstown a century ago and found the need to establish their own ethnic churches.

So can Jofre and Boccardo. They are Roman Catholic, but have had trouble finding a church in the United States.

“It’s strange to pray in a different language,” Jofre said.

English backgrounds

Language is not as much a barrier for these newcomers trying to fit into the Johnstown community.

Virtually all in the highly educated group have a strong background in English.

 It’s especially true for the India contingent, Devineni said.

“The language of higher education in India is English,” Devineni said.

“They have been taught English since grade one.”

And an accent is not necessarily a bad thing in Johnstown, Kvecher said.

“If you are in Philadelphia or New York and you have an accent, it is not unique,” Kvecher said.

It is not hard to fit in here, most of the newcomers agree.

“The people are very easygoing,” Devineni said.

“Maybe they understand the problems more because their fathers and grandfathers came here from other countries.”

“We felt like family,” Jyothi Gella said.

“They really accepted us.”

The friendly welcome and acceptance by the local community was cited by many newcomers as the factor in deciding to make Cambria or Somerset counties their new home. Several also pointed to some of this region’s other assets.

“It’s a great place to raise a family,” Devineni said.

Big-city benefits

“Johnstown is a small city with big-city benefits,” Kamal Gella said.

Many of the newcomers say they socialize with others from their homelands or other nations, but not exclusively.

They say with personal effort, they build a group of friends with diverse backgrounds.

“There are a lot of foreign-born doctors,” Jofre said.

“We are friends with some of them. Most of our friends have  melted into this melting pot.”

Jofre and Boccardo first came to Johnstown in 2003 to take part in the residency program, but moved to Cleveland for two years for Boccardo’s surgical fellowship. They had opportunities to settle elsewhere, but came back to Johnstown.

They have a 2-year-old son, Joaquin, and another child on the way.

“Every time we go to visit my parents in New York City, we love the stores and all the life,” Boccardo said.

“But after two or three days, we look at each other and say, ‘Can you see us living in a city with little children? Raising a family here?’”

The answer is “Johnstown.”

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