Cambridge, Mass.: A Refugee Magnet

29 percent of the city's population is foreign born.

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Johannes Hirn

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older brother – now dead – of the two men suspected of setting off the bombs at the Boston Marathon earlier this week, once confided to a photographer, "I don't have a single American friend, I don't understand them."

The 26-year-old Tsarnaev was a boxer who once said he hoped to become a naturalized American on the U.S. Olympic team. His 19-year-old brother Dzhokhar – the suspect still at large in a citywide manhunt – was a student athlete of the month at a Cambridge high school, later the winner of a $2,500 scholarship from the city. But despite some biographic details (and Olympic aspirations) that look utterly ordinary, the two men, who officials say were of Chechen origin, evidently failed to integrate with the Cambridge community (yet bafflingly chose not to flee it after Monday's bombing).

Cambridge is not exactly an international center of Chechen refugees, most of whom live outside the U.S. in Russia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe. But 29 percent of the Cambridge population is foreign-born, and the city has long been a port of entry for immigrants thanks to universities that are a popular draw internationally. Historically, Cambridge also has a reputation as a liberal and welcoming community (Harvard, for instance, is home to an Immigration and Refugee Clinic).

Tamerlan Tsarnaev (as part of his otherwise unexplained boxing photo shoot, seen above) said he and his family fled Chechnya in the early 1990s during conflict there that displaced hundreds of thousands of Chechens. He said the family lived for several years in Kazakhstan before coming to the United States as refugees. Other media reports today suggest that the brothers applied for green cards in the United States with Kyrgyz passports.

There's still so much we don't know about these two young men. But as we learn more, their story could very well wind up being used as a cautionary tale for communities that willingly become immigrant and refugee hubs – and the challenges such places face in integrating new arrivals from war-torn parts of the world.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.