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A diverse mix

From Kosovars to Chinese, Mexicans to Malaysians, Columbia offers an array of cultures.
Monday, July 26, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:16 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

The shelves of movies at Ninth Street Video in Columbia look like a miniature model of the city itself. Films from Russia, Vietnam, Africa and Latin America share the space with mainstream blockbusters and works from black and Hispanic directors.

The store’s owners keep up the variety based on what consumers are buying.

“We know that there is an audience and a customer base and an interest, especially in this university town,” part-owner Sally Beattie says.

The crowds that browse those shelves span from retirees to college students, from nostalgic immigrants to people who’ve never left hometown Columbia, Beattie says.

Columbia keeps growing — in terms of its population and the number of people of various races and ethnicities.

From 1990 to 2000 the city’s population grew 22 percent, according to the U.S. Census, from 69,101 to 84,531. 2003 estimates put the population at 89,174.

Although they still remain a comparatively small percentage of the total population, minority groups have followed the growth trend. In 2000 the number of Hispanics increased 91.5 percent from a decade earlier, from 905 to 1,733; the number of blacks increased 33.7 percent, from 6,859 to 9,173; and the number of Asians increased 28.6 percent, from 2,828 to 3,636.

Furthermore, more foreign-born people are coming to Columbia. From 1980 to 1989, 1,169 foreign-born people arrived in Columbia. From 1990 to 2000, 3,549 arrived — a 203.6 percent increase.

The largest groups of foreign-born Columbia residents came from China, India and Mexico, according to the U.S. Census.

This growing population demonstrates itself in far more than movie rentals. International restaurants and grocery stores are scattered across the city and are often owned by natives of those foreign regions. One of these places, the Felini restaurant in downtown Columbia, belongs to Bekim Canhasi, who arrived in Mexico in 1999 as a war refugee from Kosovo. He moved to Columbia with his family a year ago because he wanted to start his own business.

Canhasi says he likes Columbia because it’s “not too big and not too small.” Still, Canhasi says, he sometimes dreams of Boston, Chicago or New York, which host large immigrant communities from Kosovo. Canhasi believes his family of 15 is the only group of Kosovars in mid-Missouri.

“I don’t feel like a minority because the society here is so diverse that at some point it looses the meaning of majority and minority,” Canhasi says.

Canhasi has been home twice since the war ended. On those trips, he faces another task — explaining America to his friends. “I try to be realistic and to explain how life and society are here,” he says. “A lot of them have their ideas from Hollywood propaganda.”

“I came here for the good life,” Canhasi says. “But I didn’t just get it; I had to build it.”

For the opening of his restaurant, Canhasi consulted the Small Business Development Center at MU. The center helps entrepreneurs with research feasibility studies, business plans and advice on legal issues and has assisted many business owners like Canhasi.

“Our center is probably seeing more minority and women clients each year,” director Frank Seibert says. “It’s our perception, after working with banks and other professionals, the we have a level playing field for all businesses.”

The city of Columbia is working to recognize and foster local diversity. The Human Rights Commission sponsors the annual Columbia Values Diversity Celebration that is part of the Martin Luther King Jr. commemorations, the study circles program “Let’s Talk, Columbia!” and various individuals and organizations working on educational or outreach programs.

The study circles gather participants from different backgrounds to discuss various topics in small groups. Coordinator Nanette Chun-Ming Ward says many participants notice that there are diverse groups in town but not much interaction among them.

No single approach will foster better communication and understanding, she says. “It will take ongoing and constant effort and work.”

On a warm summer evening, more than 30 peoople who have come to participate and have been total strangers before sit in a circle in the public library, talking and listening to one another. The question of diversity comes up several times as participants share their life experiences.

“I think there’s lots of diversity — ethnicity, religion, disability — lots of diverversity in different forms in Columbia,” participant Dee Campbell-Carter said after the meeting. She is black.

Campbell-Carter came to Columbia 28 years ago from New Orleans to pursue her graduate degree at Columbia College. She likes the city because “it’s low-key, there’s lots of cultural activities and it’s a good place to raise children.”

Participant Noor Azizan-Gardner was born in Malaysia and grew up in France, England, Malaysia, Indonesia and the United States. She started living in Columbia 17 years ago when she married her husbandwho had a teaching position at MU.

Back then, she says, diversity was harder to notice. “At that time, I really felt that the university was very, very diverse, but once you get into town, you don’t see that as much,” Azizan-Gardner says. “But it’s becoming more and more as the years go by.”

She says she finds Columbia welcoming toward immigrants but more so on the MU campus then in the city. The lack of a good public transportation system and large pockets of immigrant communities may make it difficult for immigrants at first, she says.

While some find it harder to communicate with fellow countrymen, others say Columbia has made it easier for them. Yi Zhu came to Columbia 18 months ago when his father got a job as a researcher at MU. He was born in China and has lived in many cities around the United States before relocating to mid-Missouri.

While he misses the buzz of the big city, he says Columbia has given him a different type of experience.

“Before I moved here, I didn’t meet people who had a similar background as I did—with strong Chinese heritage but also with a Western way of living,” Zhu says. “But there’s a lot of that here because of the university.”

Columbia also has given Zhu a chance to focus on academics and his family. Diversity coordinator Ward believes people need to be sensitive, open and aware to appreciate and develop the diversity in Columbia. The main thing, she says, is to “invest time to get to know people as individuals.”


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