The Charlottesville area has always been shaped by immigrants, and we have a long tradition of recognizing them for it. French-born Claudius Crozet, who served as an engineer in Napoleon’s army, constructed the first railroad from Charlottesville to Richmond in 1851. He then blasted a railway tunnel straight through Rockfish Gap, missing perfect alignment from the Nelson to Augusta sides by only four inches. Today, the town of Crozet is named in his honor.
More recently, Dave Matthews is well-known for having immigrated to the U.S. from his native South Africa. In 1994, then-mayor David Toscano officially declared September 27 to be Dave Matthews Band Day.
At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, local attorney Khizr Khan and his wife, Ghazala, famously reframed the presidential campaign by explaining how one of the sons of this immigrant family, Humayun, died a hero’s death in an American Army uniform. A surviving son, Shaharyar, owns a biotech firm in Charlottesville and has published important medical research.
But what about some of the unsung immigrants who help make Charlottesville the city that it is? We patronize their businesses, listen to their music and greet them on the street, but it is easy to miss out on their personal stories. From a downtown tailor to a UVA cancer researcher, here’s a look at some of the immigrants who continue to make Charlottesville a great place to live and work.
Parvin and Yadollah Jamalraza
Parvin Jamalraza’s downtown tailoring shop, Yady’s Alterations, looks like a mash-up of two centuries. An antique sewing machine stands beside the counter, powered by a foot treadle rather than electricity. This isn’t here to provide atmosphere. It is loaded with a bobbin of thread and ready for action. More modern electric machines stand behind it.
“Here we repair or [make] alternations. Back home, we were making clothes,” says Jamalraza. In her native Iran she grew up with the sewing skills that have become rare among most Americans. With our disposable consumer culture and SOL requirements that have pushed out home economics, Jamalraza and her husband, Yadollah, provide services to the public that few Americans are now able to.
“It was not life easy there [Iran],” says Jamalraza. “My kids growing up, they don’t have much opportunity to go to school, to get knowledge. That was why we decided to leave home.”
Twelve years ago, the family was granted refugee status and arrived in America, where the International Rescue Committee helped them settle in Charlottesville.
“When we got off the airplane at the airport there was a lady who knew us, waving, from the IRC,” says Jamalraza. “They helped us and got a home for us. …it was not easy to talk because we didn’t know a word of English. They helped with many things. Talking English a little bit. We knew alphabet English because we went to school, but speaking it is different!”
The IRC was instrumental in helping the Jamalrazas navigate life in Charlottesville.
“They helped us get anything that we needed,” Jamalraza says. “They tried to find a job for my husband. …I got two good teachers to help me with my English.
After two years of working for other businesses, the couple decided to open their own alteration and tailoring shop. The permits, taxes and other paperwork at first seemed too much to deal with. But Charlottesville City officials made it easy for them.
“At first, we thought, ‘We can’t do that,’” says Jamalraza. “And my husband went to the City Hall and they help us.”
In the beginning they did a lot of advertising. But they have long since stopped.
“People like my work and they tell each other, that’s why I don’t need any advertising [now],” says Jamalraza. “I’m really happy about that. People trust me. My husband is very good with the leather and I am good with the clothes.”
The couple both believe that disposable consumerism is becoming a problem around the world. Objects that could be repaired are thrown away and entirely replaced, wasting resources.
“Right now technology is getting a little bit lazy for people,” says Jamalraza. “That’s why young people don’t go to learn how to make things. …Still I see people and I try to tell people, ‘Yeah, you can fix that!’ We don’t like to say no. …When I see a face happy, it makes my day like that.”
Anyone who listens to Robin Tomlin’s radio show, “The Soulful Situation,” on WTJU every Monday at noon knows that he is deeply knowledgeable and passionate about soul and funk music. What you probably don’t know is that he crossed an ocean because of American music and never went back.
“I came to America 30 years ago because I was really obsessed with an indigenous style of music heard only in Washington, D.C.,” says the local disc jockey in his middle-class London accent. “This was go-go music.”
The English-born Tomlin quickly became immersed in the music of D.C., Virginia and the American South. He never went home again. Today he hosts his long-running radio show on WTJU under an alias, The Rum Cove.
Tomlin grew up in Surrey, about 30 miles outside of London, and was born at just the right time to experience British punk rock at its peak.
“I come from a classically trained background,” Tomlin says. “My father made oboes, bassoons and clarinets in the Baroque style. My mother was a fine viola player, [and a] violinist and cellist. I played French horn and piano growing up…by the time I turned 15 the punk explosion had just happened. Soon after my 15th birthday I saw my first show, which was the Dead Boys and The Damned in late ’77. …I became obsessed with rebellion and live punk-rock music and new wave and I saw so many bands. Two or three nights a week I was climbing out of the bedroom—I was just desperate to see live music.”
As the punk scene died down, Tomlin went to his first James Brown concert in 1980 in Brighton, England. “I’ve loved rhythm and blues ever since,” he says.
“I saw [go-go band] Trouble Funk in London two weeks before I came to America,” says Tomlin. “And as soon as I got to America I made it my business to see as many go-go acts as I possibly could. Also rap. Run DMC, LL Cool J and Public Enemy.”
Go-go is notorious for not translating well to recordings. Like a skillful dancehall DJ, go-go bands move seamlessly from one song into the next without any breaks between. Bands play nonstop into the wee hours of the morning. To keep listening to go-go, Tomlin had to be in the actual nightclubs with the bands right in front of him.
“Seeing the shows in D.C. was hairy,” he says. “Those were violent shows. …I was so fresh off of the banana boat that I didn’t know you couldn’t go there. I was the only white guy there. But I made a sort of deal to myself that when I went to these go-go shows I’d go to the DJ before the show and say, ‘Give a shout-out to the alien Englishman in the house!’ So people would see me and know I wasn’t American so they wouldn’t dislike me so much because white Americans were not welcome. But an Englishman, that was different.”
Tomlin would later marry an American woman whose Ph.D. program brought the couple to Charlottesville, where they had two children (they have since divorced).
“The Soulful Situation” started airing on WTJU in 2000. Tomlin’s show goes beyond just playing old soul and funk records. He tracks down obscure singers, musicians and producers from the history of black music for interviews. Often he drives far and wide across the South to find these people in person. In some cases, his interviews are the only record of their personal histories. There was nothing else on the radio that came close to doing this when Tomlin started.
“I call it vintage rhythm and blues,” he says. “I try to expand people’s view of how wide the world of rhythm and blues, soul and funk is. I’ve interviewed a lot of artists, and it’s a pleasure and an honor to do it.”
Tomlin has now seen and tasted more of America than some Americans have.
“The English have a certain way we like to eat, but really I love Southern cuisine,” he says. “Country ham and two eggs over medium. …I love Virginia cuisine and Gulf Coast cuisine like jambalaya…barbecue, I’m addicted to. I’m in love with the South. The South is the heart and soul of America. There’s something about the South that just grabs you and won’t let go, even though in some places it’s ruined. The poverty in Alabama is just unbelievable to me, but I still love it. …to understand the blues and gospel and rhythm and blues; the landscape and the culture and the food, it’s all part of it. You’re missing out if you don’t get the whole thing.”
Tony Polanco might have lived Charlottesville’s most quintessentially American immigrant journey: from Little League pitcher, to starting over after 9/11 and now being the owner of a successful business that employs more than 40 people.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Polanco grew up playing the national pastime shared between the United States and much of the Latino world: baseball.
“We played a lot of baseball outside,” Polanco says. “Our toy was, ‘Play outside in the neighborhood,’ in a colony of ruins. We had equipment, we had bats, we had gloves, in the small stadium we had by the Catholic church.”
As a child, Polanco experienced what Dominicans refer to as “The 12 Years” between 1966 and 1978, when they were ruled by a dictator, Joaquín Balaguer, whose reign was marked by the jailing of political opponents and the shuttering of critical newspapers. Balaguer lost power for eight years but returned to the presidency in 1986, later losing power again for a time but then returning until 1996. The threat of falling back into authoritarianism pushed many Dominicans to leave for the U.S., Polanco says.
“I came because of the political situation,” he says. “My family decided, my brothers and sisters, [we] moved to the United States to be safe. I came with a visa on a plane to New York. …always you need to have some privileges to get a visa. To show some economic promise.”
Polanco’s psychology degree from Universidad Interamericana (a major university in the Dominican Republic) seemed like it would be an asset in his new home. In addition, he had 10 years of experience as a practicing psychologist. But it didn’t work out that way.
“When I come to the United States, that was the first thing I tried to do,” says Polanco. “My certification doesn’t have any value in the United States so I started working in family businesses, bakeries and restaurants.”
The experienced psychologist started all over again at the bottom in New York City, building a new career in food service. But that didn’t last after 9/11.
“After 2001 I was working [in food service] at a big company that declared bankruptcy in January 2002,” says Polanco. “…The center of finance for the company was in the Twin Towers. We lost the financial support for the company and the company closed.”
In the wake of 9/11, Polanco wanted to get out of New York.
“I decided I needed to find some place with less pressure to live and to grow,” he says. “I had friends here who I had visited for two, three years on vacation in Charlottesville. And I think that was a great decision for me to come to Charlottesville.”
After working in food service and hotel management for years in Charlottesville, Polanco bought a restaurant on 29 North in 2005 and renamed it the Caribbean Malecon. That didn’t work out as well as he had hoped, but his catering business that went full-time in 2012 has fared much better.
“I have around 47 people working for me,” Polanco says. “I have African-American people working for me. Hispanic people from Mexico, Colombia, Salvador, Argentina. And I have white American guys working for me, too. I think my business is a beautiful representation of the United Nations.”
In January, the Forward/Adelante Business Alliance presented Polanco with the Chuck Lewis Passion Award (named after local entrepreneur Chuck Lewis, who built the Downtown Mall’s York Place, among other businesses).
Polanco has been a leader since his 2002 arrival with the Charlottesville Salsa Club, which brings together people from many of the area’s ethnic communities (including white Americans) for weekly dance events.
Moving to Charlottesville from New York brought some major changes for the Dominican-American.
“One difference from New York is a community so integrated here,” says Polanco. “You don’t have neighborhoods for white people, black people or Hispanic people. …You live in the place you can pay and that’s it. …In New York, you live in the community you are part of. You live in a Hispanic neighborhood and that’s it. …I lived in New York in the Dominican neighborhood. In Charlottesville, you can live whatever place you can pay. This is like the best picture of America you can find.”
“We are a great community in Charlottesville,” says Polanco, “and I think we, the Latino people in Charlottesville, make this community better and make this community look like America, like the new America. The immigrants come here not just to build houses and be maids in houses, but to make America better. There is no one color that is America. Charlottesville is a great representation.”
Mouadh Benamar, a third-year graduate student at UVA, just published his first important research paper as co-author of a study that investigated how a new anti-melanoma drug fights cancer by knocking out a protein that the cancer cells need to reproduce.
“For the paper, when I first started the program at UVA we were told not to use the words ‘cure’ and ‘cancer’ in the same sentence,” says Benamar. “Yet we kept getting funding to pursue exactly that. I don’t see [this study] as a significant contribution, but it’s an investigation into how this drug works.”
Benamar speaks nearly perfect English, which is surprising for someone who didn’t move to the U.S. from his native Algeria until he was 17.
His mother is a doctor and his father is an agricultural researcher.
“I grew up in a science kind of a family,” says Benamar. “One of my hobbies as a child that may actually have influenced my future choices is that I used to collect biographies of random scientists and researchers. The idea of actually coming up with something new, indulging in the unknown and making it your known is something I was always fascinated by as a child.”
One of Benamar’s favorite biographies was of Avicenna, the 10th century Persian philosopher and scientist. Avicenna was arguably the greatest mind of the Islamic golden age, and his medical texts were used for teaching well into the 1600s.
“What is fascinating about him is that since he was a child, he was a prodigy,” says Benamar. “There were so many barriers but he moved forward. And his book was a big part of the world for centuries. …These are the kinds of things that tell you that you can truly aspire to be the person whom the world will need in 100 years. That definitely had an effect on me as a researcher.”
Benamar has been working in the area of medicine known as translational research. Translational researchers take the more basic science done by other scientists and look for ways to apply it to prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease.
“Research has always been my goal,” says Benamar. “Especially translational research where my work had direct implications and benefits to patients. …A big breakthrough in cancer is always a big goal for anyone in the field. In cancer you are competing against cells that are part of your own body.”
Benamar became a U.S. citizen in 2013 at the annual July 4 naturalization ceremony at Monticello. Charlottesville’s favorite immigrant, Dave Matthews, delivered the keynote address.
As a Muslim immigrant working to save lives in America, Benamar has been protected in Charlottesville from the discrimination that many immigrants and Muslims experience elsewhere in the U.S.
“I would say that the whole community, students, faculty, friends, made me feel like [Charlottesville] is my home,” Benamar says. “I totally forgot the word ‘immigrant’ until you called to ask for this interview! The entire community has been very welcoming and very accepting. Even before I was naturalized.
“Even though I’ve personally never faced a single act of personal discrimination, looking at the political climate, it’s hard not to notice when a leading presidential candidate sees you as a potential threat,” Benamar says. “When you see a number of leading political figures [saying that you are a threat], when an irrational fear of you is seen as commonsense. I originally saw this as a form of dark entertainment. But I don’t see it like that any longer. …that’s why I’m proud to live in a city that truly lives up to its founding fathers.”
More than 3,000 refugees have been resettled in the Charlottesville area since the International Rescue Committee opened a local office here in 1998. The nationalities of the refugees have changed, but the mission hasn’t. Bosnians in the 1990s and early 2000s. Meskhetian Turks from Russia. Then Afghans, Iraqis, Bhutanese. Iranians, Congolese, Colombians and a few Ethiopians. More recently, Syrians.
According to the United Nations, a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
Charlottesville is a particularly hospitable place for IRC resettlement, according to Harriet Kuhr, executive director of the Charlottesville office of the IRC.
“It’s a welcoming community,” says Kuhr. “There’s available rental housing. The employment situation is very good. Charlottesville has an unemployment rate that is lower than the state average, which is lower than the national average. Good schools, good access to health care. The most important thing is a welcoming community.”
Most of the refugees who arrive in Charlottesville have, at best, a suitcase full of belongings. They
are starting their lives completely over. IRC is tasked with setting them up for success in an economy
and language that is all new.
“In our resettlement program as people initially come we’re providing case management, employment assistance. Helping people find jobs,” says Kuhr. “Accessing medical care. Making sure the kids get into school properly. We have on-site ESL classes for people when they first come. That gets people right on their feet at the beginning.”
IRC also provides interpreters for schools, social services, courts and UVA’s Medical Center.
Other services include an agriculture and gardening program. “We have a lot of families, more than 50, who have their own garden plots,” says Kuhr.
Success stories include graduates of UVA and an Afghan woman who recently graduated from the University of Richmond. Many of Charlottesville’s former IRC clients have not only mastered English but have started successful local businesses employing both native-born Americans and other immigrants. A number of Bosnians and Afghans have started restaurants. Many of the Meskhetian Turks from Russia gravitated toward auto repair.
IRC has depended on donations and volunteers throughout its history in Charlottesville.
“We get a lot of support but obviously money’s always nice,” says Kuhr. “We have a lot of donated items that people bring to us. We have a lot of volunteers; interns that work in our office but
also volunteers who work directly with families. Among the things that people give us are cars,
which we really like.”
The American IRC traces its origins to the 1930s when a group of European intellectuals, including Albert Einstein, formed a committee to help European refugees who were fleeing the Nazi government and had become trapped in Vichy, France. Once the United States entered World War II, the IRC began receiving federal funding. In 1945 it began to transform into a sophisticated organization providing health care, children’s centers and resettlement assistance for refugees from around the world.
In today’s politically charged atmosphere surrounding refugees in America, Kuhr has seen some misunderstandings.
“The misconception I’ve seen floating around recently is that everyone is a Syrian,” Kuhr says. “People that know us know that this isn’t true.
Or that we are only resettling Muslims. And that we only help people for a few months. We only help people financially for a few months, but we’re able to work with families on services for three to five years, depending on what they need. We’re very focused
on that initial settlement but we’re there as needed for advice and counseling for a couple years after
This story was updated at 9am September 29 to reflect the correct name of the organization that resettled the Jamalrazas.