To the casual observer, at first glance, Main Street in West Springfield may seem like just another street in Anytown USA. But upon closer inspection, you’ll find there’s an ethnic makeup that runs the gamut from Myanmar to Romania and all points in between.   

Connecting Point‘s Brian Sullivan met with two of the street’s shopkeepers with two entirely different stories, but one similar pursuit: the American Dream. 

This story originally aired on April 2, 2021.

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: To the casual observer, at first glance, Main Street of West Springfield may seem like just another street in Anytown, USA. But upon closer inspection, they’ll see that there’s an ethnic makeup that runs the gamut from Myanmar to Romania and all points in between.

Connecting Point’s Brian Sullivan met with two of the street’s shopkeepers with two entirely different stories, but one similar pursuit: the American Dream.

Brian Sullivan, Connecting Point: Oftentimes, main street of blue collar America has certain elements that not only give it its unique charm, but also separate it from its more metropolitan contemporaries.

Maybe it’s the freight train that cuts through its center. Or the crosstown bus tearing through at breakneck speeds. It might be the side street neighborhood that rests on the edge of a busy highway with rows of triple-decker homes separated by chain link fences.

A century ago, these storefronts may have had traditional French, Italian, or Irish names. Now they cater to the most recent groups who have crossed the ocean to become citizens here in the United States.

This is West Springfield, home to the third highest refugee population in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. And according to the paintings on the side of Merrick station, they have truly traveled from all points on the globe to get here.

I was here back in the fall of twenty eighteen when they painted this mural, celebrating the ethnic diversity of the entirety of West Springfield. But just within a couple of blocks here on Main Street, I can find businesses owned by people who came here from Russia, Nepal, Turkey and Lebanon, just to name a few.  So for those who arrived here with that entrepreneurial spirit, this has been the street built on the American dream.

For one entrepreneur, that dream had the sounds of buzzers, scissors, and satisfied customers. But hearing them here in the United States, that wasn’t really on his radar when he was just a kid working with his uncles at their barber shops in Baghdad.

Ali Alsaadi, Under the Edge Barber Shop: After the war, like to be honest, I wasn’t even thinking about leaving Iraq. But opportunity came to my door and I had a chance to to move to the US, and and I took it and I took it. And I’m a big believer that there’s an opportunity for me there, you know, and it’s — I always thought about owning my own business.

Brian Sullivan: Before opening shop here in West Side. In October of twenty eighteen, Alsaadi spent his first eight stateside years learning the ins and outs of American culture while cutting hair in an Iraqi community in Hartford, Connecticut. It was those first few weeks in the Nutmeg State that really helped set the tone for his American experience.

Ali Alsaadi: It was definitely helpful for the beginning, because you need some support in the first couple of days when you move to a new country. You have to develop a skills of speaking different language, of course. And then and then you have to take it from there to navigate what route You want to take.

Brian Sullivan: In 2016, Alsaadi, who had been a refugee only a few years prior, became a full-fledged American citizen, joining an Iraqi-American community that makes up less than one percent of West Springfield’s overall population. But here on the corner of Russell and Main Streets, that presence feels much greater.

Lebanese Americans, meanwhile, make up a slightly larger contingent in West Springfield. Roughly one and a half percent, although they’ve been a part of the American fabric since the 1980s. But for all of the assimilation they’ve achieved over the centuries, sometimes the smell of traditional Lebanese cuisine is just enough to spark a craving for a taste of the Old Country.

Taste of Lebanon Customer: I myself from Lebanon. So this Lebanese food here and and I like — actually I like the most, the people are very generous, very nice, great cook

Brian Sullivan: That generosity and love of cooking turned out to be the driving force behind opening the restaurant in August of 2014. But the idea at first seemed a bit out of left field when owner Nisrine Awkal’s husband proposed that he quit his job as a mechanical engineer and she quit hers as an interpreter and social worker to give this thing a go.

Nisrine Awkal, Taste of Lebanon: And in the beginning I was like, “Are you okay?” Like business that we don’t know anything about. We love cooking, like I used to always host a lot of parties, host a lot of dinners, you know? We love cooking, sharing food with everybody. Like this is an Arab-Mediterranean culture, that you’re always cooking and sharing with everybody.

And he said, “let’s do it.” And so, he he quit his job, I quit my job and we opened the restaurant.

Brian Sullivant: Coming to the United States on a green card with her husband in 1997, Awkal’s journey to American citizenship was different from Alsaadi’s, who arrived in these shores as a refugee. But my question for each of them, as they navigate the rocky waters of running a successful business, is the same. Is the American dream still alive?

Nisrine Awkal: You have a plan, you can do it. Anyone can do anything in this country. Anyone. Like that’s what I tell my kids. Take advantage, because the blessings and opportunities that gives you, I see very few countries give that.

Ali Alsaadi: Is still alive, still exists. This is the land of opportunities. If you put in the work and you put in the discipline, if you put in the hard work, it will definitely exist.