A once-sleepy suburb becomes a harbinger of the international city of the future.

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CITY COUNCILMAN Joe Duffie has driven his creaky brown pickup to Tukwila Elementary School so often that it could probably drive there by itself.

The truck, with its “God Bless America” bumper sticker, is a working man’s vehicle.

Call Duffie on his cellphone during the day and he’s likely to answer breathless, having taken a break from mowing lawns and tidying flower beds to answer.

His business card for The Duffies — a home-maintenance company he runs with his wife, Jacquelyn — captures his work ethic: “No job is too small!”

At 69, Duffie has retired from more jobs than most people have worked: The National Guard, ship building, a paint company, construction supplies.

He’s been on the council 31 years, and has lived in Tukwila since 1967, when his was one of only three black families in the city.

Last year, he retired after 21 years as head custodian at Tukwila Elementary.

“I didn’t think they’d hire me,” he recalls. “A black guy at an elementary school? Are you kidding me?”

But here he is, doffing his baseball cap with the U.S. Army insignia and walking through the school doors like he owns the place.

A line of third-graders spots him instantly. They wave excitedly as they file into the cafeteria, calling his name. Duffie beams and waves back.

The lunch room fills and, suddenly, it feels like we’ve wandered into the United Nations.

White, black and every shade in between is elbow-to-elbow, eating lunch. Somali. Kenyan. Eritrean. Bosnian. Turkish. Korean. Vietnamese. Mexican. Russian. Burmese. Nepali. You need a world map to keep track.

The cultural mash-up is one of the more obvious signs of the global migration that has transformed this once sleepy Seattle suburb into an international city of the future.

Largely ignored, sometimes mocked, and often mistaken as “Southcenter” after the shopping mall that occupies the city’s south end, Tukwila has quietly taken its place beside New York and San Francisco as one of the most diverse cities in the country.

Minorities are expected to outnumber whites in the United States by 2043. For people under 18, the pace of change is expected to move even more quickly: Minorities will be the majority by 2018.

By those measures, Tukwila — 19,500 residents strong — is way ahead of the curve.

In Tukwila, 62 percent of the population is minority and more than 49 percent speak a language other than English at home, according to the 2010 census.

The New York Times named its school district the single most diverse in the country, with 71 percent minority students.

Tukwila’s diversity is a source of pride here. It’s also a source of challenges for the police, the growing school district and residents facing larger problems: nearly a quarter of the population lives in poverty, compared to 12 percent in Seattle, and Tukwila’s crime rate is the highest in King County.

The city is beefing up its police force, and hopes a new, six-acre development along a troublesome stretch of Tukwila International Boulevard will bring in more residents and businesses.

The city has its work cut out, but the optimism is palpable, and not just at City Hall. People here think they’ve got something special going on, even if others are dismissive.

And they do. But it’s easily missed by most people, whose only experience with the city is driving through it on the freeway at 60 miles an hour.

A LONG, SKINNY city tucked alongside the roaring tangle of Interstates 5 and 405 south of Boeing Field, Tukwila is the sort of place most of us just blast by.

Its neighborhoods, some dating back to the 1800s, are largely invisible from the freeway. Yet the area has been inhabited since the end of the last ice age. Tukwila takes its name from the Duwamish people who have lived here for at least 10,000 years. The city was less than a mile square when an eccentric newspaperman named Joel Shomaker led a successful drive to incorporate it in 1908. Shomaker didn’t stick around to see the city grow, though. A fortuneteller told him he would soon die, and he decamped to the wilderness, according to Kay Reinartz’ book, “Tukwila, Community at the Crossroads.”

By that time, waves of immigrants, many of them staking land claims or pursuing gold, had settled in the area.

The 1910 census showed that in Riverton, now part of Tukwila, immigrants from Italy, Japan, Germany, Sweden and Denmark accounted for 63 percent of the population.

Tukwila remained a tiny slip of a place until the 1950s, when the Port of Seattle tried to turn the fertile Duwamish Valley into a vast parking lot for heavy industry, according to Reinartz’ book.

Valley landowners threw in with Tukwila, which began annexing land to the north and south and rezoning it for commercial and light industrial uses. The cobbled-together city eventually triumphed over the Port in court.

Construction of the two interstate highways in the 1960s, and what is now the Westfield Southcenter mall, ultimately destroyed the city’s rural quality. Still, you can come upon scenes that catch your breath: stretches of the Duwamish River as it wends through the city or hilltop views of the Cascade Mountains.

But what really fascinates about Tukwila is the way it has embraced waves of immigrants. For evidence, look no farther than Tukwila Trading Company, a grocery just north of the Link light-rail station on Tukwila International Boulevard.

Almir Adjemovic, 29, is the grocery buyer. He knew little English when he arrived here with his parents and brother 13 years ago as a refugee from Bosnia.

He graduated from Foster High School, where, by his count, his friends hailed from 15 or 20 countries. Today, Adjemovic is an unofficial ambassador for new arrivals, the go-to guy for immigrants looking for a piece of home.

“Usually, when a new group comes in, they start learning English — especially the kids — and they’ll come and start asking for things,” Adjemovic explains.

He points to a section of shelving on aisle 11B stocked with products from Nepal. The goods include akabare peppers in vinegar, spices with paintings of Hindu deities, and rock-hard cheese cubes made from yak’s milk.

Adjemovic says his Nepali customers don’t eat beef — “sacred cow” — but they do eat goat, as long as it’s been castrated first. “You learn these things over time,” he says matter-of-factly, and then chuckles as he recalls some of the more interesting customer encounters.

Working at the Trading Post requires a desire to communicate and an unwavering belief in people’s good intentions. How else could Adjemovic determine that the Nepali man who stuck a finger in Adjemovic’s face while repeatedly uttering the word “bitch,” was asking for bleach?

The city’s current ethnic makeup is due, in large part, to the efforts of refugee-resettlement agencies, especially the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit agency that helps people fleeing persecution and war.

The IRC’s Seattle office used to place most of its clients in Seattle. But about 10 years ago, Seattle became too expensive and too dangerous, says the agency’s executive director in Seattle, Bob Johnson. A case worker, who lived in Tukwila and knew an apartment manager there, suggested they look south.

Borka Markovic’-Paponjak was living in a refugee camp when the IRC relocated her and her family from Bosnia to Tukwila in April 2007.

“Tukwila was a scary place then,” she says. “There was prostitution, drug dealing, gang fights. Ten days after we arrived, a guy was killed in front of the coffee shop for 20 bucks.”

But Markovic’-Paponjak and her husband both got jobs. The kids thrived at school, and the other Bosnians in the complex formed a tight bond, watching after each other’s children and holding summertime pool parties.

“Now, I don’t have a speck of fear in me,” says Markovic’-Paponjak, who these days owns a home here and helps other refugees at the IRC. “Tukwila is warmer, nicer, willing to help,” she says. “

Each year, about 500 refugees are placed in Tukwila. Once on their feet, many move on, and their foods disappear from the Trading Post’s shelves.

But some commit for the long haul.

Many Bosnians still call the city home; Somali refugees who joined the wave of East Africans arriving in the late 1990s also have staked a claim. They’ve opened small shops and restaurants, and built a mosque on the site of a former casino that city officials say was once a magnet for crime.

Abshir Warsame is in his second year as co-owner of Juba, an East African restaurant attached to a series of small shops that line a narrow hallway in a shopping center off Tukwila International Boulevard.

“The ladies run the place,” Warsame says of the African immigrants who own most of the small shops in the Juba Shopping Mall.

One of the merchants, Lul, a mother of eight, says she’s been running her 10-by-10-foot shop for about a year. She works seven days a week, selling clothing to a mostly Muslim clientele.

When one of her children calls, she tucks her cellphone in her hijab, freeing her hands to tidy the store.

“We have a safe home in Tukwila. We have community here,” she says, smiling. In the afternoons, she and some of the neighboring merchants gather on rugs to sip African coffee.

Warsame, a refugee from Somalia, says he’d like to keep the restaurant open until midnight. But that depends on plans to reduce crime.

TUKWILA’S POLICE chief, Michael Villa, might be the most important man in the city right now.

People attending meetings as part of the city’s strategic-planning process repeatedly cited the city’s high crime rate as one of the most pressing problems.

Although fewer than 20,000 people call Tukwila home, as many as 170,000 visit the city daily to work or shop or make trouble: More than 82 percent of people arrested in Tukwila last year were from outside the city.

Villa, 45, grew up in Tukwila and has been a police officer here since 1990. He became chief almost two years ago, and last year persuaded the City Council to add $1.3 million to his budget to hire more officers and target problem areas.

The big focus, he says, is the Tukwila International Boulevard corridor between South 135th and South 160th streets. The Abu-bakr Islamic Center mosque, which stands in the middle of that stretch, has helped clean up the area. The six acres scheduled for mixed-use redevelopment, which includes senior housing, is just to the north. Seven other commercial properties north of South 146th Street also may be redeveloped. The City Council recently voted unanimously to condemn and possibly acquire five hotels, a smoke shop and a pawnshop that police say are associated with high numbers of crimes.

The unique population “creates unique policing challenges for us,” Villa says.

The police have worked to strengthen their relationship with ethnic communities, visiting schools and apartment complexes, meeting with community leaders, and running an annual toy and food drive. The department also is hiring more officers who speak the community’s languages.

“Most of the folks that live here, they’re hardworking people,” Villa says. They want a safe community. We want a safe community.”

KATRINA DOHN, a math coach at Cascade View Elementary, is standing curbside, waving to students as their amber buses rumble away from the curb. A wave of taxis paid for by the district follows to transport homeless students.

More than 89 percent of Cascade’s kids are so poor they qualify for free or reduced lunch. Cultural references must be consistently challenged: things like fire drills, underwear, curtains, even baseball, may have no parallel in the student’s culture. Parental involvement is limited outside of teacher conferences. Those who are involved often require translators, no small feat when more than 34 languages are spoken in the school.

But the school takes it one child at a time. Dohn said the school has made significant progress in math scores by adopting teaching plans for each student, and was recognized by the state this year for math improvement. It’s a monumental effort supported by the students and the community. Local businesses donate shoes and clothes and meals, while groups such as the Tukwila Children’s Foundation fill in the gaps, such as buying a new suit for a student to wear at a national competition.

A few weeks earlier, several new Somali students arrived, including a fifth-grader who was just learning to count.

“You’d think they’d make fun, but they’re all fighting over how to help,” Dohn says. “I think our kids become much more compassionate. They realize that kids come from tough situations.”

Especially the refugees, who have seen things most of us can’t imagine: war, famine, torture.

At the start of each year, the school holds a Care Night, loading up the cafeteria with clothing donated from the community. Each child fills up a bag.

“You can’t take anything for granted,” says Mellody Matthes, the Tukwila district’s interim superintendent. “It’s a gift to be able to have these people in our community, and learn and grow from them.”

People like the petite Nepali elder who began bringing groceries to the school every day after learning that one of the Nepali students was homeless.

Matthes acknowledges that not everyone’s on board.

“White flight happened,” she says. “But the people who are here embrace (diversity). It’s incredible the things that go on in support of the kids.”

Susan Kelleher is a Pacific NW magazine staff writer. Erika Schultz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.