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Arizona refugees get a hand in trying to establish homegrown businesses

Olga Lucia Parga, left, and Madeline Bosma

Olga Lucia Parga (left) assists Madeline Bosma (right) on her proposal as part of her business proposal representing "Sewing a Better Future," for the Bhutanese Mutual Assistance Association of Tucson during the Social Entrepreneurship Expo as a part of the Social Entrepreneurship Integration Project at the Refugee Focus building in central Phoenix on Sept. 22. ASU's School of Social Work helped organize the Social Entrepreneurship Integration Project to create a unique program that educates and develops social entrepreneurs in Arizona's refugee communities.
Photo by: Deanna Dent/ASU News

September 24, 2015

It might be a delicious bit of fish from Lake Tanganyika, or a colorful, flowing Dashiki shirt.

For people who have been uprooted from their homelands, tiny familiarities like these can be powerful ties to a culture they’re working to sustain.

And that’s why a group of refugees in Arizona is trying to turn food, clothing and other native touchstones into businesses that will help them thrive here.

A team from Arizona State University’s Office of Global Social Work has been helping them succeed.

Last week, six refugee groups made entrepreneurial pitches to potential investors. They proposed small start-ups including a day-care center, a tailoring shop, a transportation service, a cultural event-planning business and shops that would sell ethnic food and clothing.

“There is a fish that is found only in Lake Tanganyika,” said Sadiki Elmady of the Congo Democratic Community of Arizona. He was pitching an “African Market Center” for the West Valley.

“Those fish are very delicious. We would like people in Arizona to taste that African fish.”

The new businesses will provide goods and services needed by the refugee communities, and the profits they generate will fund the refugee groups’ work in resettling newcomers.

Barbara Klimek is director of ASU’s Office of Global Social Work, part of the School of Social Work. She led a team of undergraduate and graduate students in the social-entrepreneurship project, in which they worked to give technical assistance to the groups as they created their proposals.

“These organizations decided to start looking not at federal funding but at creating businesses that are social-oriented, helping their countrymen and anybody who needs social services,” said Klimek, who is also a clinical associate professor at ASU.

David Androff, associate director of the Office of Global Social Work, said that over the past few years, the team realized that what the groups really need is money. So the entrepreneur project has been the focus for the past year.

“They don’t want to be seen as dependent, weak refugees, which makes them seem disempowered,” said Androff, who is also an associate professor.

“They want to be integrated into society.”

The issues of resettlement

Globally, the plight of refugees has become an urgent issue in recent months as Middle Eastern refugees have been flowing into neighboring European countries, hoping for asylum.

Civil war and terrorism have displaced millions of people – including more than 4 million from Syria, alone, since 2011. The European Union has grappled with how to absorb the masses of migrants who are streaming across borders in search of peace.

Last month, the United States agreed to accept more refugees, lifting the cap of 70,000 that has been in place for three years. The U.S. will take 100,000 refugees by 2017.

Arizona took in about 3,800 refugees from 41 countries last year. About 30 percent came from Iraq, with hundreds more from Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cuba.

Klimek said that the model for refugee resettlement in the United States emphasizes jobs and self-reliance and newcomers can get assistance for up to five years. That’s different from the European method, which offers health and language help for a year, she said.

“After that, there is nothing that would provide them with any opportunity for getting jobs or for starting a business. They are on their own.

“This is why Europe and many countries are so reluctant to accept refugees – because it becomes a burden.”

ASU’s Office of Global Social Work is hoping to live up to its name. The team has submitted a proposal to partner with other universities to train refugee advocates in Europe as they deal with the influx of immigrants.

“We can be part of the conversation because of our work at the local level, and we want to do that on an international level as well,” Klimek said.

In Arizona, the ASU office recently helped refugee groups consolidate their power by forming a brand-new umbrella consortium called New American Community that will work with aid agencies.

“It’s obvious that they are more powerful in terms of what they can do if they work together,” Klimek said.

Androff said that while refugees are encouraged to find work as soon as they arrive in America, they often end up in minimum-wage jobs because of language and cultural barriers. The new businesses can take advantage of skills they already have, such as tailoring.

“That’s not a way to build a future in society,” he said.

“Their human capital is being wasted. They have skills, but they just can’t translate them when they get here.”

American dreams inspired by homelands

At the pitch meeting, the aspiring entrepreneurs stood before a room full of potential investors. A few were tentative, but all of them were enthusiastic about their projects.

“I’m a little nervous,” said Amit Mahat as she flipped through her index cards before pitching an event-planning business on behalf of Horizons for Refugee Families in Tucson.

“The ‘African Sunset’ package would provide food, music, décor and servers,” she said, noting that the business would be called Suva, which means “good” or “happy” in Nepalese.

The groups had a practice pitch session in May, and the ASU team spent the summer helping them refine their projects. They especially needed to work on the business details, Androff said.

“They’re really high on passion and community value. There’s a lot of interesting cultural stuff. But the actual technical details of ‘how are you going to make a profit at that’ are less clear.”

Madeline Bosma twirled around in pink high heels as she described “Sewing A Better Future,” the tailoring shop and women’s clothing retailer proposed by the Bhutanese Mutual Assistance Association of Tucson.

“Our designers will use Bhutan as their inspiration,” she said, showing off her brilliant blue jacket. A metallic polka-dotted scarf was draped on one shoulder.

Bosma said the association considered the number of tailoring shops that already exist in Tucson and how much profit they earn when calculating the rate at which it could repay an investment of $242,705.

All of the clothing will be labeled as being made by refugees in America, she said.

“People will know it’s American made and not something they bought in China.”