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The United States of Resettlement

Refugee Entrepreneurs ‘Keep Business Alive’ in Upstate New York

Many refugees resettled in New York live in the upstate city of Buffalo. As the local population declines, advocates hope refugees can reinvigorate the city’s economy. The refugee entrepreneurs of West Side Bazaar have already had some success.

Written by Rakshitha Arni Ravishankar Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Macrame stall by Nadin Yousef, a refugee from Iraq for the last two years at the West Side Bazaar. Rakshitha Arni Ravishankar

Nadin Yousef sits in the second booth from the door, her hands working the tassels hanging from a tiny wall at her workstation. In between knitting, she adjusts the wires of her earphone so they don’t get tangled with her threads.

She sells home decor items like dreamcatchers and wall hangings at West Side Bazaar, a 3,200-sq-ft (300-square-meter) enclosed market in Buffalo, New York. She creates them using macrame, a technique of knotting threads to create patterns and designs.

“In Iraq, everybody did macrame, so I never thought of starting this business back home. When I came here, I saw that I could use macrame to make money,” she said.

The bazaar – a space that provides facilities for new businesses that serve the community – is six years old. It helps anyone wanting to start a business, but most of its vendors are refugees and immigrants living in the local area.

Next to Yousef is a tiny office space with a curtain, where Khaing Naing, originally from Myanmar, helps people file income tax returns.

“Most of my clients are refugees and immigrants – especially people who just moved to the city,” he said. “It’s not limited to just refugees. I help anyone who needs a commercial tax preparer.”

“Grant Street is where most of the self-employed refugees start their businesses,” said William Sekacy, supervisor of the Immigration and Refugee Assistance Program at the Catholic Charities of Buffalo, one of the oldest resettlement organizations in Buffalo.

Every stall bears both a name and its owner’s country of origin. There are three kinds: retail, food retail and commissary kitchen.

On one side of the bazaar, the misty steam of bamboo caskets lined with Chinese pork buns and Burmese noodle soups mixes with the waft of Pakistan’s spicy halal meat. There are hearty Ethiopian curries, laid out attractively on injera, a speciality bread from Ethiopia. On the other are retail booths with embroidered cloths and bright, colorful accessories from Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Sudan.

In the past decade, Buffalo has resettled about 10,000 refugees, a sizable portion of those from Myanmar, Somalia and Bhutan. Last year, Buffalo resettled nearly 2,000 refugees of the 5,800 resettled in New York state. A study by the New American Society released in February 2017 reveals that nearly 23 percent of metro Buffalo’s foreign-born population – 15,530 people – were refugees in 2014. That’s a large number for a medium-sized city of around 250,000 people.

Michelle Holler, manager of the bazaar, said the market has done two things for the neighborhood: It has created new demand for products and services previously unavailable, and generated employment in specific refugee communities that are represented in the market.

“The bazaar is reflective of the refugees placed in Buffalo. Ten out of 20 stalls are owned by Burmese refugees and immigrants,” said Holler. “The local residents keep the business alive here,” she said, noting that the bazaar’s food business made $19,840 in revenue from January to June this year, while the retail businesses made $4,330. The bazaar is curently at a 100 percent occupancy rate.

The Economic Impact of Refugees

It’s hard to track economic integration of refugees in the U.S. Most studies measuring the impact of the immigrant population on local economies in the U.S. do not distinguish between refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers.

“We don’t track refugees once they’re resettled in the country. There is data collected for the initial months of resettlement, but there is no centralized system to keep track of how refugees are doing after 90 days’ resettlement,” said David Kallick, director of the Fiscal Policy Institute’s Immigration Research Initiative.

Kallick said that collecting such numbers would provide important insights in a city like Buffalo, where the local population has been on the decline. But this is being balanced by arriving refugees, some of whom have bought homes, send their children to local schools and work in local businesses.

Meanwhile, the bazaar was recently nominated by Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown for the 2017 Wells Fargo and USCM Community WINS Grant Program worth $300,000.

The nomination is good news for refugee businessmen and women, especially at a time when funds are being diverted away from refugee resettlement following President Donald Trump’s executive order.

Kallick emphasizes that refugees are having a significant impact on an area like Buffalo where the population is dwindling. “Refugees stay, while others leave the city,” he says.

This story has been updated to correct David Kallick’s professional affiliation. He is the director of the Fiscal Policy Institute’s Immigration Research Initiative, not an economist at Foreign Policy Institute.

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