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You've Got Three Jobs? Welcome To Alaska's 'Ballard North'

The yard in front of the CARQUEST Auto Parts store on this remote Alaskan island is crowded with old cars.

Sonny Nguyen, the store’s owner, keeps them because it can be faster to grab a part from the front yard than to get it shipped out here. Nguyen first came here in 1977.

NGUYEN: “Left for a few years, came back in ’86 and stayed here ever since.”

"Here" is the town of Unalaska on Dutch Harbor, a fishing port close to the western end of the Aleutian Islands. It’s 2,000 miles from Seattle but so closely linked to the city that it’s sometimes known as “Ballard North.”

Nguyen moved to the U.S. from Vietnam. He spent a few months in refugee camps and then was resettled in Seattle’s Green Lake neighborhood.

NGUYEN: “I like that area, but we can’t afford to buy a house there, too expensive, so we moved to Northgate. Bought the house in Northgate and that house we still have, 40 years later.”

He’s hoping to retire in that North Seattle house. Leaving Unalaska would bring him closer to his five kids and their families, who live up and down the West Coast. His 10th grandchild was born recently at Overlake Hospital in Bellevue.

But for now Nguyen owns a car rental company, a body shop and an auto parts store in Dutch.

It’s the norm here, having two or three jobs. At one point the pastor of the Unalaska Christian Fellowship church was also a prison guard and head of the local Division of Motor Vehicles office.

Because it’s so remote, the town has a chronic labor shortage: It's said that just about anyone who is tough enough to live there can find a job or start a business and make good money.

Nguyen first came up to Dutch to help his stepbrother.

NGUYEN: "He had a taxi cab company, but nobody was fixing cabs. So cabs broke down and would just sit everywhere on the side of the road."

He fixed all the taxis, which led to people coming to him with their car problems.

NGUYEN: "Then everything started growing, kept growing more and more, and we got the family up here and the kids loved it so we have stayed here ever since."

Dutch Harbor, in the town of Unalaska, is a little farther west than Hawaii, with winds so strong there are only a few trees. Bald eagles are so common that people think of them as pests.

But it is beautiful. It’s on the tip of a volcanic island, so it looks like green hills are emerging straight from the sea.

It’s also the kind of town where no one locks their doors. You could leave your keys in the ignition because even if someone stole your car they wouldn’t get far.

The Seattle connection is strong even though the city is physically far away. Seahawks fan gear is everywhere, and it seems almost everyone has family in Seattle or lives there in the winter.

Coe Whittern grew up in Unalaska. He owns the local hardware store, which is vital in a town where people have to do almost everything themselves.

On Sundays he likes to crab.

He butchers the fresh-caught crabs – commonly sold as snow crab – in the back of his pickup truck. Then he boils them in his front yard in a tall metal pot on a gas burner.

Whittern says he has seen the population change in the many years he’s lived here.

WHITTERN: “The Caucasians are probably a minority by now. Filipinos are probably the highest number. Mexicans are probably the second.”

The town is about 39 percent white, 32 percent Asian and 15 percent Hispanic. He says everyone gets along pretty well.

WHITTERN: “Our best students and our best athletes are all diverse nationalities. And they’re well-accepted. Nothing’s perfect, but this is the best place I’ve ever been for accepting people for people.”

Assefa Wubie would agree. He’s part of a new wave of immigrants and refugees from East Africa who have started coming up to Dutch Harbor.

WUBIE: “It’s not bad, everybody’s good. ’Cause everybody’s working, you know?”

He says people here are too busy with long shifts to have much conflict.

Wubie left Ethiopia five years ago when he won the U.S. visa lottery. He moved to Seattle and later came up to Dutch to work for Unisea.

WUBIE: “I like it, you know? ’Cause 12 hours a day and then making good money.”

Unisea is the biggest seafood company in town. It owns the only hotel, and it has a couple of restaurants and bars.

After a year in Dutch, Wubie got promoted out of processing to work in one of the company’s restaurants.

WUBIE: “Then I learn sushi, like, within five months.”

He got to be a sushi chef, which he loved. He was learning and making money. But then one day, out drinking with a few friends, he got in trouble. His neighbors called the police and reported them for fighting.

Wubie says they weren’t fighting, just messing around. But the companies tend to have zero tolerance policies for fighting. So he lost his job.

Instead of flying back to Seattle, he decided to stay.

He found a job as a cook at a bar called the Norwegian Rat Saloon. The Ethiopian friend who first told him about Dutch Harbor got him a second job in the bakery at Safeway.

He says he wants to save up enough to bring his family here. Then they’ll move to Seattle and he can go to school.

But for now, it’s all about making money in Dutch.

Alex Stonehill and Sarah Stuteville contributed reporting.

This series, "Ballard North," was produced with the support of the Program Venture Fund, in partnership with The Seattle Globalist. It was reported by Jessica Partnow, with additional reporting by Alex Stonehill, Sarah Stuteville and Feliks Banel. Edited by Carol Smith.

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